Fear of the frame

After all the chatter that's been going on throughout ScienceBlogs about Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney's editorial, Framing Science, published in Science on Friday, I almost thought that there was nothing really left for me to say. Of course, regular readers of this blog know that there's rarely an issue that's been so thoroughly picked over by my fellow science bloggers (ScienceBloggers and otherwise) that I can't find something else to say about it. And I'll do it by, in effect, "framing" the issue in perhaps a slightly different way than Mooney and Nisbet did. But first, let's examine a bit what they actually said:

In reality, citizens do not use the news media as scientists assume. Research shows that people are rarely well enough informed or motivated to weigh competing ideas and arguments. Faced with a daily torrent of news, citizens use their value predispositions (such as political or religious beliefs) as perceptual screens, selecting news outlets and Web sites whose outlooks match their own. Such screening reduces the choices of what to pay attention to and accept as valid.

Frames organize central ideas, defining a controversy to resonate with core values and assumptions. Frames pare down complex issues by giving some aspects greater emphasis. They allow citizens to rapidly identify why an issue matters, who might be responsible, and what should be done.

After reading the entire article, I have to ask why some reaction has been relatively hostile. Indeed, Larry Moran and P. Z. Myers, and ERV, in particular, have been particularly hostile to the concept. Here's the reason I ask: 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. P.Z. is correct in one way: The most successful scientists are often also the best communicators. It's just that they're communicating to other scientists. Is it really so much of a stretch to try to get them to communicate more successfully with nonscientists? I think not.

If you're a scientist, consider this. What is the very first thing you do when you sit down to write a scientific paper to submit to a peer-reviewed journal? Well, if you're like me, you gather together your data and organize it into a number of figures that you will include in your paper. But how do you organize the data? Again, if you're like me, you organize it around a "story," a narrative that is designed to make sense of the data for scientists who might not necessarily be in your discipline or even familiar with the scientific question that you're discussing. I learned this from my Ph.D. thesis advisor. Indeed, one of the most important things that he taught me was how to communicate my findings. I always wanted to include more and more detailed data; he showed me the value of the "data not shown" phrase in a paper at strategic points, telling me that, if the reviewers ask for it we can provide the data that wasn't shown, but putting it in otherwise just muddies up the message.

Now, if you're a scientist, consider a scientific talk. What's the first thing you do when preparing the talk? Well, the first thing you probably do is to decide on the narrative and then make your slides and pick your data to fit into the narrative that you're trying to communicate, taking into account who your audience is. Is it a group of scientists of mixed backgrounds? Is it a bunch of scientists who are experts in your field too and will thus be more demanding? As my thesis advisor told me again and again: Paint with broad strokes. The worst talks tend to bury the listener in piles of data. It's all very impressive as far as quantity, but it won't necessarily convince them that you are correct. The best talks tend to stick to one or two key points (certainly no more than three in an hour-long talk), paint the big picture first, and then zero in only on as much detail and data as is necessary to convince the audience, depending again on who the audience is.

Finally, consider the ultimate case, something I'm gearing up to do for May and June deadlines for the Department of Defense, which, oddly enough, funds a fair amount of breast cancer research: Writing a research grant. This is where, sadly, scientists have to be at their most persuasive, because they're asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund their research. Time and time again, I've heard that the success of a grant usually rises or falls on the abstract and the one page summary of the specific aims (i.e., the specific questions that the research project in the grant proposes to answer). Now that I will have been on an NIH study section for a full year as of June, I know that this is true. The abstract and the specific aims page set the narrative and serve to get the reviewer interested in reading the rest of the grant. A good abstract and specific aims page can't save a bad grant, but a bad abstract and specific aims page can sink a good one, or at least hurt its final priority score.

How is this any different from "framing" an argument for a mass audience or for the lay public? It's not, really, other than in degree and in how many constraints are placed on us by the media as opposed to scientific venues. P.Z. may say that most scientists are "awesome" at communicating, but I have to disagree. He must hang out with a different bunch of scientists than I do. (Either that, or physician-scientists are a particularly boring and uncommunicative lot compared to hardcore basic scientists, which is a distinct possibility.) Most scientists are average at best at communicating, even with their fellow scientists. Just think about how many scientific talks at various conferences are not sleep-inducing compared to the ones that truly engage you, and you'll see what I mean. Just think of how few scientific papers are a joy to read, rather than chore to slog through, and you'll see what I mean. Not unexpectedly, most scientists tend to be even worse at communicating with nonscientists. The reason for this, I suspect, is that communication is generally not a priority in science education.

As Bora put it in an excellent (and Orac-length post):

Truth is not sufficient. Dry data will not sway non-scientists. Their eyes will glaze over and they'll move on. Reserve your precision for your papers, posters and talks. You can talk like that to your fellow scientists. But as soon as you leave that narrow circle you will have to adjust your language.

I'd go further than that. I'd say that truth is not sufficient even when scientists are talking to other scientists. It's how I as a scientist "frame" my data and argument, the narrative that, hopefully, flows from my data with my help, that convinces other scientists. There's a reason we usually don't show the minutiae of, for example, how we calculate our DNA concentrations, how we assay our protein purity. If it's not necessary to convince our audience, we don't show it, but we have it in reserve in case anyone (a reviewer of a scientific paper, for instance, or an audience member at a scientific talk) asks for it. The better the "frame" around the data and argument, the more likely it is that a scientist will be able to convince his fellow scientists of the correctness of his hypotheses.

This brings us to the media and the issue that Mooney and Nisbet are discussing. P.Z. correctly rails against the "sound-bite" mentality of the media, which make getting a scientific message across to the public accurately very difficult, but such complaints do not really help scientists figure out how to get their message across now. For better or for worse, this is the way the media is now, and it's unlikely to change any time soon. "Framing" issues for fellow scientists is one thing. The data are still presented, and science is still discussed in a forum that is (usually) not tainted by partisan politics. But going into the political arena is a different issue. As Nisbet and Mooney point out, "facts will be repeatedly misapplied and twisted in direct proportion to their relevance to the political debate and decision-making." And, the sad facts are, as P.Z., Bora, and others have pointed out, that the public is depressingly scientifically illiterate. It would be a fantastic world indeed if the vast majority of the public were scientifically literate and well-informed, but they aren't, and changing that is a long-term problem that does not help scientists in the short term. Which is why Mooney and Nisbet have a point when they say:

Some readers may consider our proposals too Orwellian, preferring to safely stick to the facts. Yet scientists must realize that facts will be repeatedly misapplied and twisted in direct proportion to their relevance to the political debate and decision-making. In short, as unnatural as it might feel, in many cases, scientists should strategically avoid emphasizing the technical details of science when trying to defend it.

Bora, I think, made a somewhat better analogy:

Actually, much of science is really taught similarly. Not starting with religiously-based nonsense and gradually shedding it, but starting with oversimplified versions of science and gradually shedding the errors. We necessarily lie to 1st-graders about evolution (or anything else in science for that matter), because basics are oversimplifications that are factually wrong but are neccessary to learn in order to be able to understand it and be able to move on to more sophisticated versions later. Only in graduate school, with full immersion into the literature, one sheds the last errors in one's chosen area of one's chosen field of one's chosen scientific discipline.

Even scientists adhere to semi-erroneous ideas outside of their narrow area of expertise. There is no way anyone can know everything absolutely correctly about all of science. And non-scientists should not be expected to know it either. So teaching them with that goal in mind is doomed to failure. And the way we tend to teach is just like that - trying to teach the best available knowledge of our own disciplines to the unprepared minds - of course they switch off and get easily swayed by the sweet-talking preachers.

But what about "shattering the frame," as P.Z. puts it? Is there a role for that? The glib answer is that "shattering the frame" is just another kind of frame, but let me come back to politics again, which is what this whole discussion is really about: the politics of science-based policy issues. In politics, there are at least two distinct sets of skills, which are often not possessed by the same people. There are those who are able to throw out the red meat to their base, to fire up the base to support the party and "storm the barricades," so to speak, against the "enemy," and there are those who know how to negotiate and persuade in order to get things done. The former group spews fire against the "enemy"; the latter group does deals with him in order to advance their goals as much as is realistically possible, at the price of usually being forced to give something up in return. They know that they can't get anywhere by attacking their opponent's most cherished beliefs and therefore don't do so, even if they think their opponent's most cherished beliefs, be they religious, political, or whatever, are a load of fetid dingo's kidneys.

That 's politics in a nutshell. Both types of "politicians" play a role, and both serve a purpose in advancing a party's cause, and most politicians fall somewhere in a spectrum between the two extremes. Rare is the politician who can do both, and they tend to be the most successful. If we liken the two types of politicians to the two types of scientists, we also have to realize that long-term transformational change that firebrands like P.Z. and Larry advocate is not likely to occur in our lifetimes. Furthermore, for many of the scientific-based policy decisions that need to be made we do not have the luxury of waiting until it does. Decisions have to be made soon, and policies drafted. Attacking the barricades by attacking the most cherished beliefs of opponents of good science may be very satisfying and may advance long-term goals, but in the short term it can be very counterproductive to the goal of educating the public and helping people to see the scientific issues involved. It can also lead to some rather nasty battles between people who have in essence the same goals, such as the whole "Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists" (i.e., "appeasers" like, supposedly, Neville Chamberlain, as opposed to Winston Churchill, possibly the single worst historical analogy I've ever heard and almost certainly the absolute dumbest thing that Richard Dawkins has ever written) kerfluffle that erupted around Thanksgiving right here on ScienceBlogs, to much heat and very little light. It is a battle that will almost certainly recur, with the same result. It's also a good reminder that science itself, being a human activity, is not immune to the influence of politics and ideology, and that scientists themselves have their own ideological axes to grind which (we hope) are related to good science most of the time, but are not always.

The bottom line is that the battle for the public's soul does, at least in the short term, come down to a matter of framing the science in such a way that (1) the public can understand it and (2) that it appeals to shared values without gratuitiously or needlessly insulting those who are ignorant of the science or ideologically opposed to it. Like it or not, politics is not the rarified world of science and scientific discussions. It's also rather odd that one of the more vociferous detractors of Nisbet and Mooney's concept, Larry Moran, states:

I think I'll try and emulate Isaac Asimov, Dick Lewontin, Carl Sagan, Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Peter Medawar, Niles Eldredge, and Stephen Jay Gould. 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."

Actually, this is a bit of a straw man argument. Neither Mooney nor Nisbet, as far as I can tell, has said that scientists have to "disguise their atheism or liberalism" to get their message across. Rather, they are saying that scientists don't get very far insulting their audience or burying them with data that they don't have the background to understand. It also neglects that not all scientists are atheists or liberals, as hard as that is to believe and as much as Larry might wish that to be so. Finally, let's look at a couple of his examples. Isaac Asimov did exactly the sort of simplification and framing necessary to explain the science to a lay audience. As for Carl Sagan, he understood precisely that when, for example, explaining evolution, you do not persuade anyone by attacking their religion first. Look at The Demon-Haunted World, his last book, for example. He goes out of his way not to disparage the religious, even while attacking certain forms of religious pseudoscience in no uncertain terms, particularly creationism. Look at Cosmos. What is Cosmos but framing science in a way designed to sell it to the public, with gee-whiz special effects that were state-of-the-art at the time? Indeed, Sagan took a fair amount of heat for his efforts at popularizing science, as I recall.

The bottom line is that "framing" is nothing more than understanding your audience's knowledge and values and tailoring your message to it to communicate as effectively as possible. Scientists should not fear the frame. After all, they frame their message all the time in professional venues and settings, whether they recognize it or not. The differences between the framing that scientists do on a daily basis and the framing that Mooney and Nisbet are in essence a matter of degree, and it is not necessary to "lie to the public," as Larry Moran puts it, to accomplish this. Simplification to allow an audience uneducated in mathematics and even high school level science is not necessarily lying, if done correctly so that the essence of the scientific concept to be grasped shines through. The purpose is the same (to get our message across to an audience), but to reach the public it's necessary to go further at it than scientists are used to, and that's where the discomfort seems to lie.


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I think that's a really good analogy for a lot of what goes on in communicating science to the public. To some extent, "framing" is just a less pejorative name for the same process.

Well if you WANT to start naked mudwrestling with Rethuglicans, all I can say is 'good luck' - you'll be tied up and thrown away before you can say 'I'm a scientist, get me out of here'. Of course we need more effective pro-science political representatives, but if the Democrats aren't up to taking on the right wing anti-science spin machine, then trust me, neither are you.

By Jonathan Vause (not verified) on 08 Apr 2007 #permalink

Orac sez:

The bottom line is that "framing" is nothing more than understanding your audience's knowledge and values and tailoring your message to it to communicate as effectively as possible.

OK. . . if that's what framing is, then why drag out the whole anthropological apparatus (due to Goffman et al.)? As Greg Laden wrote,

Nisbet and Mooney apply the concept of "frames" to the problem of science and scientists communicating with the public, and being understood in a public forum. With a little digging, it is possible to ascertain that when they speak of "frames" they are speaking of Goffman's Frame Analysis Theory, a widely known concept in Anthropology, Education theory, etc. This is an idea that anyone writing (in a great journal like Science) about communication, etc. would know about and understand. But, what is actually happening here is that the authors are using the word "frame" in a way totally unrelated to Goffman's ideas. This is not a modification of Goffman, or an update, or a better use. It's just misuse and misunderstanding. It borders on being just dumb shit. Considering the value of column inches in science, it is a bit of a shame.

I'm reminded of what children do sometimes with new words. For example, a young child gets some idea of "going" somewhere and "driving" somewhere, and uses the word "drive" for everything. I'm driving to the bathroom now. Drive me my applesauce. Skippy (the cat) is driving the ball. It's that but with the word "frame."

After going into some details, this is how Greg finishes:

Now, my question is, did this misunderstanding of the frame concept come from Beardsley, whose editorial they cite? In other words, did Nisbet and Mooney just find this "frame" thing on the Internet then proceed to substitute the word "frame" wherever possible in their discussion?

Beardsley references George Lakoff's writing about frames. George Lakoff writes a lot of popular books (good for him) but is a linguist. His concept of frames is very much Goffman's, modernized perhaps and applied, but the same thing. But I get the impression that Beardsley picked up this concept not even from Lakoff, but rather, very third hand. He says:

"Frames suggest an alternative strategy. Nisbet proposes that communicators who specialize in science and analyze ethics and policy options better than many of today's journalists could be more effective in educating the public about scientific issues. ... The frames concept recognizes that facts are not enough to win popularity; emotional responses need to be excited as well. ..." [emphasis added]

Oh crap. It seems that Beardsley's concept of frames comes from Nisbet. But Nisbet cites Beardsley's post for what frames are. Oh dear.

This piece in Science is a lost opportunity. What a shame.

Democrats aren't up to taking on the right wing anti-science spin machine, then trust me, neither are you.

I never claimed I was. I was merely expressing my puzzlement at why scientists are so hostile to the concept of "framing" issues for the public (dismissing it as "spin" and even "lying") when they in fact "frame" issues and even engage in out-and-out salesmanship and spin in grant proposals, papers, and talks to fellow scientists all the time as part of their jobs. Oh, we often find it distasteful to engage in such spin and salesmanship to get our labs funded and our papers published, but we do it nonetheless. Why is it any more distasteful to do the same thing with respect to the public for goals that are arguably more important than just getting our labs funded and getting our research published? Perhaps it's elitism, a point I contemplated making above but decided against it. Also, the stretch necessary to do it for other scientists outside of our disciplines is not nearly as great.

In any case, given your apparent attitude, it's clear to me that neither are you up to countering the effects of the anti-science forces in this country. You'd turn off potential audiences who are not set in their misunderstanding with your first few sentences and liberal use of the term "Rethuglican." Try that tactic, and only those already predisposed to believe you would give you the time of day.

However, your little rant does bring up an interesting question: What, specifically, do you mean by "pro-science" and "anti-science"? I rather suspect that such terms in and of themselves can't escape a political meaning.

I think Blake's quote from Greg Laden reveals why so many SciBloggers and commenters are violently against "framing". The use of the word certainly called to mind, for me, the Lakoff political concept, which I am absolutely no fan of at all because I think it's at heart a justification for spin. Given that science's strong point is its close relationship to reality, the resistance to that type of "framing" is understandable. If that wasn't what Mooney and Nisbet meant, then, well, they misused the term to the detriment of their point.

Touche. I can't see myself engaging in a serious effort to combat the forces of unreason either, but you shouldn't assume that I would be completely incapable - at least, if by 'framing' we mean using different language for different situations, you are right that anyone can do it (though as far as this debate's concerned, The Loom, Uncertain Principles, Island of Doubt and Highly Allochthonous have put the counter-arguments better than I could). And I'm utterly baffled by your question, I suppose that by 'science' I mean the attempt, achievable or otherwise, to objectively explore how the world works using observation and experiment, rather than relying on received wisdom/prevailing ideology, etc. People on left and right sides of the political spectrum can sign up to that idea (and incidentally, I generally lean right, not left, so any derogatory language aimed at my own side should be understood in that context).

By Jonathan Vause (not verified) on 08 Apr 2007 #permalink

Thanks to Joshua for summing up what I wanted to say with many fewer words than I would have used. Now, for my own ramble:

The best popularizations of science — Asimov, Sagan, James Gleick, et al. — have, in my experience, a sort of artistic quality, in that they can benefit different people in many different ways. A bookworm child like I once was can pick up one of their paperbacks and, in devouring it, gain an easy introduction to a subject. But then the bookworm grows up, goes to college, sees the math behind the things which were explained qualitatively — and realizes just how valuable those books had been! After all, a good part of pushing into the unknown is being able to think intuitively about things for which we don't have precise mathematical descriptions yet (we're trying to invent the precise math as we go along). Understanding the historical progression of science, and getting a feel for the sweep of it, is aided greatly by "popularizations".

Even after a physics degree, I can kick back and enjoy Cosmos (particularly now that we've got a projector TV).

So, if "framing" is just about "speaking the other guy's language", then I'm all for it. Understood in that sense, it is essentially an extension of what we do to poor undergraduates every day.

However, I have to turn around and emphasize that when all you have to offer is the truth, there's precious little justification for telling anything less. If we lose our respect for truth, not only will we cripple our ability to explain science, we will also imperil our ability to do science.

Coordinated PR activities by national science organizations? Great. Workshops for teaching individual scientists how to talk to high schoolers, the general public and (worst of all) politicians? Great. Drives to recruit more scientists and students into the blogging community? Love the idea. Video debates among and moderated by professionals, aimed at a general audience and distributed over the Web? I'll gladly help however I can.

Embracing the ugliest parts of modern media and political mud-slinging? I'm not so enthusiastic about that.

This whole debate bugs me. It's too far removed from any sort of ground level I can appreciate. It's hard, even, to tell what the words people are slinging around actually mean. "Framing"? Do you mean that in the anthropological sense, or are you using it in a debased, this-is-what-I-learned-from-a-blog-comment way? It's certainly nice to see a whole bunch of amateurs rise up and take on the fellow who has, after all, written a book about science policy; the fact that many of the comments floating past my screen are thoughtful and high-level cheers me up quite a bit. Nevertheless, without some connection to actions and concrete proposals for change, we're apt to diverge into metaphysics.

(Tangentially, I have the same complaint with the people who, following Smolin and Woit, rant about string theory. You don't benefit anybody by accusing physicists of working without connection to experiment and then doing just that yourself, talking sociology without actual observations and testable predictions.)

Finally, I'd like to comment about Orac's suggestion that the terms "pro-science" and "anti-science" cannot "escape a political meaning". To me, this idea (if true) signifies something very bad. The denial of reality should not be the basis for a political party.

Scientists, especially academic scientists, spin, shill, hype, and even dumb down all the time:

- Scrounging for grants, as Orac mentioned

- Search committees and tenure committees, especially if decision-making colleagues are in different subfields (for example, biological vs cultural anthropology)

- Introducing a complex concept to undergrads for the first time (Are these going to be introduced with the most severe rigor, including a review of major controversies and various nuances?)

- Spinning one's research results in a talk or paper: unnecessary neologisms, overhyping its significance, downplaying the accomplishments of predecessors and peers

This is exactly and precisely what Thomas Kuhn said in "the structure of scientific revolutions".

What he calls "normal science", is what work-a-day scientists do everyday, working within the existing scientific paradigms. Working outside those paradigms, what Galilio did with the heliocentric model of the solar system, what Darwin did with evolution, what Einstein did with relativity, what Planck et al did with quantum mechanics, what Pasteur did with the germ theory. None of those scientific advancements could be understood in terms of the existing scientific paradigms of the day. There is no way to "frame" relativity with Newtonian physics. No way to "frame" the Earth going around the Sun with the Sun going around the Earth.

Some scientists are simply unable to work outside the existing paradigms. Einstein got the Nobel prize for the photoelectric effect, not relativity. The reason was because there were some on the Nobel Comittee that could not accept that relativity was valid.

This is exactly and precisely what I consider to be the main "feature" of autism spectrum disorders (and the current subject of my research and blogs (sort of)). The "social isolation", allows ASD individuals to discard cultural and scientific paradigms when necessary. I think that is something that is extremely difficult for NTs to do. 40% of the US population believes that evolution is false. There is no train of facts and logic that can reach that conclusion. The only reason that people believe it is because someone told them to.

For the vast stretches of evolutionary time, it was far more important to agree with everyone else than to be factually correct. Galilio could have been tortured and executed for his "crimes". Lots of other people were.

Now, if you don't follow the scientific paradigms as understood by the peers doing proposal review, your proposals don't get funded. Not because they are "understood" to be wrong, but because they are so "far out", that if they are funded and fail, the peers who authorized funding will look foolish.

There are lots of "scientific paradigms" that are simply wrong. Homeostasis for one. What in cells is "static"? Actually, nothing is. How does "homeostasis" evolve? It doesn't. What evolves is cells surviving, and manipulating any and all parameters of physiology any which way are "fair game" if it makes cells survive better. Actually I would consider true "homeostasis" to be excellent proof of ID. Something that could not evolve a little bit at a time.

Of course good luck if you want to attack a scientific paradigm as entrenched and dogmatic as "homeostasis", even when it is completely wrong. Get a proposal funded if it says the concept of homeostasis is wrong? NFW!

The real problem with the proposal of Nisbet and Mooney is that there is no assurance (or even chance) that it is a path that will work.

NTs will only believe things that are told to them by people who are good at lying. This is an evolved feature of humans. How many women have gotten pregnant because they believed the lies that some guy told them? An evolved reproductive feature for both of them.

Is an excellent ability at lying compatable with being a scientist? Unfortunately, no it isn't. The best liers, lie to themselves. No scientist can lie to him/herself and remain a scientist except at a low level.

Scientists could hire a "spokesman" who was good at lying, and tell him what to say, but so do non-scientists. The tobacco companies lied about the effects of tobacco for years. Exxon hired the same PR company that ran the disinformation campaign for the tobacco industry.

This is why advertisers use actors instead of real people. Actors are good at lying. That is what they make their living doing, pretending to be something they are not. They do a "better" job of pretenting to be a scientist than a real scientist does as far as conveying "scientific information" to an NT.


Not to dispute any particulars of your points, but within science there are error-correcting mechanisms through which the spin, hype and other sins can be criticized. For example, if you dumb down your freshman lectures too much, your students will be left with a poor understanding, and you'll get in trouble with your fellow faculty. Other mechanisms work in other arenas; we need such devices, honestly, because humans are awfully good at sinning and can do it with style. CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error.

Our protective devices have at least a thousand failure modes, naturally, but at least they exist — within science itself! What comparable checks and balances exist in television, magazines, pulpits and the other avenues through which science is disseminated?

See, this is where I put on my physicist hat and say that all this talk about framin' is just that: talk. It's sociological blah-dee-blah. I don't know from frames — installin' windows was never my trade — but I can tell that not havin' consequences for people doin' wrong is a sure-fire recipe for trouble.

Since the problem involves communicating science, we need to look at our current communication structures and find out what they're doing, too.

Regular Language Log readers will know that Mark Liberman, a linguist and a clear communicator himself, has tracked a great deal of bad science reporting and arrived at some melancholy conclusions.

Seeded by a breezy Daily Mail article that didn't even get the author's name and book title right, two pieces of quantitative psych-lore have been spreading through the world's media over the past few days [November 2006]: women talk three times as much as men, and men think of sex every 52 seconds, compared to once a day for women. These "facts", we've been told by Matt Drudge and fark.com and dozens of newspapers and CNN, the BBC and NPR, have been "discovered" or "confirmed" by Dr. Louann Brizendine's scientific studies.

The public reaction has mostly been that this is like doing experiments to discover that the sun rises in the east, or to confirm that animals deprived of food will starve. In fact, however, the "facts" about word counts and sexual thoughts are false: Louann Brizendine hasn't done any research on either topic, the sources she cites contain no relevant evidence, and existing studies contradict her claims. [Sources provided in the original.]

But to insist on the concept of "fact" in this context is a recipe for frustration. As I've watched the reaction to Louann Brizendine's book over the past few months, I've concluded that "scientific studies" like these have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy. It's only fundamentalists like me who worry about whether they're true. For most people, it's only important that they're morally instructive.

In amongst all this talk of what scientists should do and how scientists should explain themselves, what's being done to train new science writers and make it more profitable for media organizations to report actual, factual discoveries? Are we to assume that "framing" knowledge in the right way will make it propagate without error through a flawed system? Should we paint everything we discover with giant letters which say "MORALLY INSTRUCTIVE!" in vivid neon, like subway walls which tell us that "JESUS SAVES"?

The whole driving force behind this "framing science" debate is the fact that our society is not a digital free-flow of pure ideas, but rather a realm where ideas stick to and are processed by human brains, with all the failings and peculiarities that entails. If we want to persuade people of anything, short-term or long, we have to understand how they believe, and wherefore.

Blake Stacey: "within science there are error-correcting mechanisms through which the spin, hype and other sins can be criticized."

Point well taken. There are very different forms of feedback at work in a) the academic/scientific world, b) science journalism and blogs, and c) popular mass media.


As usual, we agree much more than we disagree! :-)

You're entirely right to point out the places where scientists "spin" for their students, grant committees and so forth — I just think we need to pay extra special attention to the feedback mechanisms at work in each case. I couldn't give a pair of fetid dingo kidneys for a "frame shift", but changing the feedback mechanisms at work in particular arenas could do a world of good.

For the record, I agree with you that scientists engage in a lot of spin, exaggeration, and outright deception when giving scientific talks, writing scientific papers, and writing research grants.

Just so you know, I don't like that either. It's not good science.

I find it odd that you immediately jump to equating my observation that scientists put different spin on their data and argumens with the concept that this entails "exaggeration and outright deception." I was not speaking of that at all, although I do agree that it does happen more than it should. What I was talking about is the necessary choosing of a narrative that all scientists do when they sit down to persuade other scientists that their data says what they have come to the conclusion that it says. There's a difference. The latter involves choosing to emphasize some points and some data over others to get your point across, and, although it can involve exaggerations or deception in the hands of some scientists, usually it does not.

Consider this: There are many granting mechanisms these days that require a lay abstract or even a longer lay explanation, mainly because there are nonscientists on the review panels and study sections. This is true, for example, for the D.O.D. cancer grant mechanisms, where patient advocates are part of the review process. Is it "deceptive" of me, for example, if I write about tumor angiogenesis (my research interest) that it "starves tumors"? It's actually rather more complicated than that, as more recent work has shown. This is not a hypothetical sort of question to anyone who has ever applied for a D.O.D. Idea Award for breast cancer or prostate cancer.

Excellent post! I was also surprised by the violently negative reactions to Mooney's article. There seems to be a clash of epistemologies going on here, between people like you who recognize that framing is an inescapable fact of communication and understanding, and a more naive view that seems to think that there is such a thing as unframed truth and we should just stick to that.

I don't think it's an accident that many of the anti-framing people are also the most hardcore uncompromising atheists. (I wanted to say "fundamentalist atheists" but that would trigger a round of indignation). It's almost as if the existence of different points of view is something of a threat, even though those points of view might have legitimacy and in any case need to be dealt with if communication is to take place.

Thinking in terms of what story you want to tell in a paper is an excellent method for figuring out what to put in a paper. I'm a non-Ph.D. who uses research in my syndicated advice column, and it really makes a difference when a paper is written along those lines (not that I put that into words before I read it here).

What I do in my column (when applicable) is translate the work of "ivory tower" researchers so it can be understood by the ordinary person. It's exceptionally hard to do, especially with complicated topics or research, but I think more researchers should learn to write like I have to in my column. Nobody wants to be bored, and more people will grasp your work if you not only write clearly, but also defensively -- think in terms of what could be oversimplified (if your work is likely to get media attention) and guard against that within your paper (in a way that doesn't compromise your paper).

mtraven, much of this is simply wrong, as atheistic Coturnix, for example, is strongly pro-framing, and vaguely agnostic Wilkes is vaguely against it. My biggest concern is the danger that if scientists are seen to be deliberately 'framing' their public presentations, they will automatically be dismissed by opponents as unobjective 'activists', regardless of whether that is a fair description. (Coturnix, Myers and Dawkins make no secret of the fact that they are activists, of course, but their style of public discourse is not typical of the majority of scientists). This is why I believe that 'tailored' science presentations should be left to journalists and politicians, while scientists remain aloof, dispassionate, factual and, if you like, boring, when they are asked to publicly comment. This method of presentation is a 'frame', of course, but its purpose is to emphasise that science is an elitist pursuit, and the people who practice it really are experts.

By Jonathan Vause (not verified) on 08 Apr 2007 #permalink

If an article is poorly written, people won't read it. But if people's eyes glaze over merely because the article is full of "dry data," well, the answer seems to me obvious, which is to train people to understand how to read such things. It strikes me as a terrible idea to take science that may not, in any sense, be directly relevant to a layperson's life and try to twist the frame around so that it is.

Sure, an article for the great unwashed public (which means me, I'm no scientist) has to be written with that audience in mind. And yes, better communication skills are always valuable. And yes, the more science reporting at different comprehension levels, the better. But if a good scientist is neither trained nor willing to write for such an audience, there are plenty of people who are.

So why pick on them? I fail to see the point.

Among other things, the very word 'frame' is a negative frame.
One of its meanings is:

To make up evidence or contrive events so as to incriminate (a person) falsely.

(American Heritage Dictionary)
Which is one reason I do not find negative reactions surprising.

A lot of non-scientists don't understand, that to most scientists, most scientific papers are dry and dull and not something that they understand or are particularly interested in.

It takes a lot of background to understand most science. The only interesting science is stuff that no one has done before.

The vast majority of scientific papers are written as communication from one scientific expert in the narrow field to another scientific expert in the narrow field. There might be a few hundred specialists in that field.

It is unreasonable to expect a non-specialist to understand it without reading all of the citations, and the citations of those papers, and of those citations. Read and understand all the papers 5 or 6 citations deep, and then you will probably have a good understanding of the paper. But then you will also be an expert in the field.

The danger of having scientists being perceived as "elitist", is precisely how the Bush administration is using "science". If it supports their policy, use it, if it doesn't, ignore it. Just what they did with "intelligence" on WMD in Iraq.

My perception is that some people simply don't care whether something is factually correct or not. Their mind is already made up. There can be no "debate" or "reasoning" with such people, regardless of how the debate is "framed".

This is a fantastic discussion and synthesis. Thank you for taking the time to post about our Policy Forum article.

In reference to Blake Stacey's comments that our application of framing as a theory of media influence might not be grounded in the literature, below is a response I posted over at Greg Ladens' blog earlier today, though the comment has yet to appear. I repost part of it here since it is probably of interest to readers.

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 Science 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 the 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.

One of the most explicit (and controversial) debates on "framing" recently has been within the Pro-Evolution/Anti-Creationism groups: how do we frame the relationship between evolution and religion? Do we try to make allies with the moderate religionists and those on the fence by deliberately putting a religion-friendly face on evolution (push NOMA; argue "methodological naturalism" vs. "metaphysical naturalism;" tell how evolution makes God even better; trot out the theistic evolutionists and hide the atheists)? Or do we encourage the expression of all honest beliefs openly and let the chips fall where they may (including the belief that following evolution 'all the way down' leads to Naturalism)? If atheists who *do* see science as undermining God tend to jump the gun and make sweeping and perhaps unjustified assumptions when they hear the word "framing," it may be because they have gotten a bit gun shy.

It's a bit like hearing the word "pro-family." Maybe someone just meant there's stuff to do for the kids, so bring them along.


Matthew C. Nisbet:

Thank you for providing the citations. If I find the time in the next few days, I'll try perusing them via the various institutional subscriptions through which I can snarf papers. Since it was Greg Laden who first raised the issue of terminology (see my initial comment in this thread), I copied your citations over to his blog.

Sastra, if we do encourage all "honest" beliefs, then what we are doing is not science.

If you want to put a "religion-friendly" face on science, it isn't science any more, it is religion. If you put a "political-friendly" face on science it isn't science any more, it is politics.

Science has as much to say about God, as it does about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Not much.

The "problem" is that some people don't care what the "facts" are. They refuse to use the scientific method, but want to call what they are doing "science", as in "creation science". "Creation scientists" may delude themselves and other non-scientists, but what they are doing is not science. There is no way to "frame" what they are doing as science.

You can modify your religious beliefs to conform to science and still do science (as the Dalai Lama has said), but if you modify your science to satisfy religious beliefs, then you are doing religion not science.

daedalus2u wrote:

Science has as much to say about God, as it does about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Not much.

Hey, science does have something to say about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny! Haven't you read that famous "The Physics of Santa Claus" bit, where it's demonstrated through the laws of thermodynamics that if Santa ever did exist, he's certainly dead by now? ;)

Vic Stenger wrote an article in the recent Free Inquiry on his latest book -- "God: The Failed Hypothesis (How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist)." He titled it "No More Free Ride." There you have it. The popular saying that "science has nothing to say about God" is not really just about shielding science from religious pseudoscience. It's also about protecting "God" from the kind of shredding it gets without the special pleading.

What I find really unfortunate is that the article on framing was published in Science, under subscription barrier, and should have therefore catered to scientists. Instead, the article is written in typical "school of communication" style, talking to the audience of the future journalist/media that might pick up the story and might want it to be ready to be talked about through TV, short articles, etc. The phrasing and development of the argument (which retains its value nevertheless) was often obscured by what a scientist would see as sloppiness: inaccurate use of quotations, terms that start having double meanings, use of terms and expressions such as "demonstrate", "respect diversity" and "strategically avoid emphasizing the technical details of science", which immediately raised, in at least part of the blogosphere, the feeling that what the authors are arguing is to turn science communication into "spin".

Unfortunately, the authors' advice on framing was not followed by the authors themselves in the first place: the argue was not correctly "framed" for their target audience. An already controversial subject generated a large debate on semantic issues with the use of "frame", "spin", "truth", etc.

It seems to me that often some stopped at the semantics, and failed to pick up the main message: adapt your message to your audience. Not everybody understands, cares, or is technically versed in scientific issues/communications, therefore the messages should be intelligible to a large audience, and not only that - they must be relevant, they must clearly explain why they are relevant to people's lives, not in principle but in practice. This is not about "spin", it is about smart communication. How many 18-year-old actually give a turd about their prof's lecture? They mostly do, as long as it gives them a good grade and they can forget about it ASAP. Unless of course, they plan to be scientists. But that is preaching to the choir - it will not positively affect policy change, nor will it contribute to science communication in political settings.
Some argue that science communication should be left to "science communicators". However, the career of science communicator is often looked down by scientists (yes, it is, check out the Career section on major journals), and often they are blamed with not being able to "communicate science properly". Which brings me to the point: if "they" are so lousy, why don't you all get off your ivory tower and start learning about the challenges of doing real science communication - i.e. not having a choir willing to be preached at, not having unlimited blogging space, and having super-limited time and space media resources, as well as having to reach out to a very wide audience, while also keeping in mind that there are cultural communication issues to be kept into account?

These are my five cents. Now, let me get back to my science article for lay people.

"It would be a fantastic world indeed if the vast majority of the public were scientifically literate and well-informed"

As a future politician, I read your blog (and other science blogs) to do just that, for myself, and regularly discuss what I've learned with family and friends. I like to think it'll make my job easier when I'm President one day.

changing the feedback mechanisms at work in particular arenas could do a world of good.

I heartily agree with the sentiment that any decent argument here should end in suggestions of actions. This is one of them. Another is that scientists working within the frame of science never the less should use unambiguous keywords. (For example, change "evolutionary theory" to "evolutionary biology" per Greg Laden's suggestion.)

Some of these will take time. What shouldn't take time was the suggestion of using hired hands, communication experts that knows the frames, when for example science interest organizations push an agenda. Which they probably already do.

I noted this elsewhere, but since Nisbet commented here, I will say again that I think he and Mooney muddied the waters by not exposing their version of definition of frame sooner. (Obviously being aware of the "turf battle".) Which would not be a good start for an initiative on communication.

Also, frames seems to be used in CS, AFAIK to guide the interpretation of meaning (or "model") for software logic. A robot would need to know if he is in the living room or the kitchen to know "which objects are hidden behind the table", as i understand it. I think Nisbet both missed another category of frame users and that perhaps their usage is a lot closer to Goffman's than his.


There is no way to "frame" relativity with Newtonian physics.

A nitpick here, or rather two, is that this is what we do when we note that we in classical physics can change from Newton's absolute space to galilean relativity. This question of choice of coordinates points towards special relativity.

But yes, the order of business is that today we frame Newtonian physics with special relativity.

The reason was because there were some on the Nobel Comittee that could not accept that relativity was valid.

This on the other hand is a discussion of picking the right frames. :-)

I haven't read it myself, but reportedly Aant Elzinga's has looked in the archives as a ground work for his book "Einstein's Nobel prize - a glimpse behind closed doors". Apparently the conclusion was that there were serious doubts at the time in several places in Sweden, perhaps not so much about the validity since observations were already performed but about the 'practical applicability'.

In the early 1900's philosophy was strong in Sweden, and especially the Uppsala school of philosophers didn't like what they erroneously saw as another and conflicting philosophy. They picked the wrong frame, in other words.

This is also what one can easily do when discussing Noble prizes. Nobel was an engineer who wanted to support progress, not a scientist. Accordingly the prize statutes awards ideas that leads to practical applications.

By a fair amount of footwork, and by instituting related awards such as the Peace award, the Nobel foundation has been able to work around most of the non-sequitur Nobel's will put in place. But it is easy to think that a contested 'philosophical theory' couldn't easily pass muster when some in the committee worked against it on those grounds.

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 09 Apr 2007 #permalink

I'm so glad someone finally brought up the grant issue. You are exactly correct, if you cannot frame the scientific problem and what you are going to do about it in the abstract and specific aims to not only grab the attention of your primary reviewers but also gain at least one advocate from the rest of study section you are sunk. It is interesting to note that even NIH advises that this section be written for a general (well educated) audience and not for an expert.

Perhaps if those of us on soft-money, half-half or less positions weren't stuck writing grants all the time we'd be the ideal people to utilize to further science in the political realm. It seems to me there is a major divide in opinions on the Mooney/Nisbet piece that draws a line between undergrad, mostly hard-money profs and medical center profs who rely heavily on grants.

By Theodore Price (not verified) on 09 Apr 2007 #permalink

Torbjörn Larsson:

I noted this elsewhere, but since Nisbet commented here, I will say again that I think he and Mooney muddied the waters by not exposing their version of definition of frame sooner. (Obviously being aware of the "turf battle".) Which would not be a good start for an initiative on communication.

I was just gonna say that.

I heartily agree with the sentiment that any decent argument here should end in suggestions of actions. This is one of them. Another is that scientists working within the frame of science never the less should use unambiguous keywords. (For example, change "evolutionary theory" to "evolutionary biology" per Greg Laden's suggestion.)

My own suggestion: change theory of evolution to principle of evolution.

Blake Stacey wrote (hat tip to David Brin for CITOKATE)

"... within science there are error-correcting mechanisms through which the spin, hype and other sins can be criticized. ... CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error.

"Our protective devices have at least a thousand failure modes, naturally, but at least they exist -- within science itself! What comparable checks and balances exist in television, magazines, pulpits and the other avenues through which science is disseminated?"

Well put.

Please, journalists, those who cover science and claim to respect science, adopt the use of 'hard argument'_among_yourselves_ and thank those who point out when you got a fact wrong, or snarked, or wrote something others could misinterpret.

Scientists make their reputation by correcting and improving on others' work. Journalists writing about science should improve one another's work (and cite to it when correcting it).

An article about science isn't just a plop-and-depart golden egg. It's a representation of what was then known. It needs to be connected to the process of updating knowledge, like the science it's presenting.

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
-- Samuel Beckett.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 09 Apr 2007 #permalink

Torbjörn, the problem as I see it, is that some science cannot be "framed" on the world view that some non-scientists have. That was the problem with the Nobel committee. The classical physicists couldn't "fit" relativity onto their Newtonian frame so they had to reject it.

Young Earth Christians can't fit evolutionary biology, or evolutionary theory, or evolutionary anything onto their 6000 year old Earth "frame", so they must reject it.

There is no ammount of "framing" that can make evolution "fit" onto a 6000 year old Earth frame. Pretending there is is disengenuous.

The classical physicists couldn't "fit" relativity onto their Newtonian frame so they had to reject it.

How do you then explain the adoption of relativity by physicists?

The only thing we have to do with our lives is live until we die. Classical physicists didn't have to reject relativity, they could just adopt a world frame in which Newtonian physics was a subset of relativity physics. My understanding of the history of the time is that lots of them did take the second option.

Young Earth Christians can't fit evolutionary biology, or evolutionary theory, or evolutionary anything onto their 6000 year old Earth "frame", so they must reject it.

Or they could reject a 6000 year old Earth - as many people have when geological evidence started showing that the planet was older than first thought.

People change their opinions all the time. For example, look at changes in opinion polls about how well your Government is doing. The fluctuations up and down are too fast and too large to be caused simply by old people dying off and children turning 18.

There is no ammount of "framing" that can make evolution "fit" onto a 6000 year old Earth frame. Pretending there is is disengenuous.

I don't think anyone argues that there is. There may however be different ways of arguing that the Earth is older than 6000 years and that evolution works, and some of these ways may be more effective in convincing Young Earth Christians than others.

Plus, of course, often a main focus of an argument is not the person you are arguing with but the people listening to the debate. Would you prefer scientists to debate in a way that encouraged most of the listeners to decide the Young Earth Christains were nuts, or encouraged them to decide the Young Earth Christains are the sensible ones and the scientists the nuts?

Of course how to achieve the first outcome is a whole problem in itself.

My hunch is that the evolution side in the Grand Debate over evolution needs to set up an institution dedicated to using public relations to inform folks of what's at stake to them in the debate over evolution. The same institution could coordinate the response to political attacks on evolution. A good P.R. campaign and ten years might turn around the public debate in this country. Just a late night thought.

Torbjörn Larsson:

I noted this elsewhere, but since Nisbet commented here, I will say again that I think he and Mooney muddied the waters by not exposing their version of definition of frame sooner. (Obviously being aware of the "turf battle".) Which would not be a good start for an initiative on communication.

If we didn't have irony in our diet, how would our blood carry oxygen?

My impression, incidentally, is that most of this discussion is still going on without real reference to any definition of "framing" established in the anthropological literature. This is one reason why I think the discussion shouldn't be conducted in terms of "frames": referencing a specialized term, over which there is debate in the specialist literature, and which everybody thinks they instantly understand because it's such a simple word, is just a guarantee of trouble.

So far, what practical ideas have come out of this?

1. Start saying evolutionary biology instead of evolutionary theory (Greg Laden), and replace theory with other words (law, fact, principle) elsewhere.

2. Establish PR offices at national science organizations (AAAS, NAS, APS, etc.).

3. As Paul Sunstone just said, "set up an institution dedicated to using public relations to inform folks of what's at stake to them in the debate over evolution." In other words, give the NCSE more money.

Less practical and more open-ended is the proposal by Hank Roberts, myself and various others to look at and fix the feedback mechanisms at work in the popular media. (I could justify this with complex-systems jargon at least as obscure and references at least as eclectic as any "framing" talk.) I already quoted Liberman on psychology and linguistics; other examples of the same thing proliferate. Look up what Greg Egan and John Baez had to say about New Scientist and the "EmDrive", or Clifford Johnson's take on the string-theory kerfluffle, or Russell Blackford's description of media inaccuracies regarding Wikipedia. . . . The list could easily continue. There's no incentive for most media organizations to report any scientific or technical issue in any depth. Even when they're caught, they don't have to change their ways.

Zero accountability.

Is it any surprise that coverage of any important topic tends so rapidly to one of a very few attractor states? All stories become "Scientists glimpse God!" or "David fights Goliath of scientific establishment!"

If anybody knows how better word choice in press releases is going to fix this, I'd like to hear.

Blake, nice summary.

I guess the result was as expected, the topic has been discussed before.

change theory of evolution to principle of evolution.

Even better! Sort of combines the fact aspect with the theory aspect.

That was the problem with the Nobel committee. The classical physicists couldn't "fit" relativity onto their Newtonian frame so they had to reject it.

No, it seems to have been the philosophers. If they weren't represented in the committee they certainly still influenced the suggestion of candidates and probably the final decision.

Perhaps you have a frame problem? ;-) But don't take my word for it, read the book.

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

The bottom line is that "framing" is nothing more than understanding your audience's knowledge and values and tailoring your message to it to communicate as effectively as possible.
But is this what you want to accomplish when reaching your audience as Nisbet on his blog has suggested?
"That's the power and influence of framing when it resonates with an individual's social identity. It plays on human nature by allowing a citizen to make up their minds in the absence of knowledge, and importantly, to articulate an opinion. It's definitely not the scientific or democratic ideal, but it's how things work in society."

It is the ends justify the means mentality. I personally have had enough of that with the Bush administration. Are things that bad that we have to become what we are fighting to win? What is winning then?

I am all with knowing your audience, not talking down to them and communicating well but Nisbet and Mooney seem to be going into territory that is dangerous to science in the long run.

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....How is this any different from "framing" an argument for a mass audience or for the lay public? It's not, really, other than in degree and in how many constraints are placed on us by the media as opposed to scientific venues.

I agree totally with this point, and in so doing, I totally disagree with you about scientists ability to communicate. As a group (not every individuals) there is plenty of good communication ability exactly because we do already need to communicate, often across disciplinary boundaries. There and in grant proposal writing and in teaching, we need to make ourselves understood quite often.

I've made this point here in more detail:

However, regarding our main point: If you are trying to convince a fellow scientist, you need to stay within the bounds of rational argument, an in particular, scientific argument. I think PZ and others (myself included) see "spinning" (i don't like to call it framing ... as per my earlier posts on the topic) with the public as appeasement or compromise of this approach. In other words, there is an issue of integrity of the topic being lost in the service of making the message poll better.