A Dialogue on Framing, the F-Word, and the Future of ScienceBlogs, Part II: Where Do We Actually Disagree?

*** Not An April Fools Entry.***

Well, folks, I am deviating from my original plan in this series of framing posts that I've promised. I had wanted to launch into a long--and, I think, revealing--insider narrative account of how it is that we wound up being this polarized. But that will take me some time to write.

People on the last comments thread, though, seem impatient for me to get to "substance." So I thought a slight deviation in my plan would be both more satisfying to them, and also quite illuminating.

What follows, then, is a series of premises that, at least to me--not necessarily to Nisbet, because I haven't specifically checked this with him--underlie the broad "framing science" argument. I'm going to list them, and then I am going to ask readers which premise, if any, they reject.

So here are the premises. Note that they are not issue specific. Note also that I am not providing references on any of this, but of course the premises broadly grow out of the social science/communication literature that is Nisbet's area of expertise, as well as some of my own writings and our joint presentation together:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what exactly do people reject?

More like this

Chris Mooney lays out the argument behind "framing". I give my thoughts, item by item. 1. We have long-running politicized science controversies on subjects like evolution and climate change, with separate polarized camps and the repeated use and misuse of complex scientific information in the…
Okay, so: After reading over some ninety comments, I think I am ready to advance the framing science discussion further. Recall that I am starting from the ground up, because I believe that while I have made some errors and Nisbet has made some errors, and there has been some unfortunate…
Well, discussion seems to have mostly run its course on "framing science" premises II and III. I have defended them, at least to my own satisfaction. There may be some folks who still reject them, but at this point, at least for those who don't, I'm ready to continue with the argument. So let's get…
I haven't given up yet. You know I'm still looking for more clarity on the basic premises of framing. I tried to work out what does and does not fall within the framing strategy in a flowcharted example and (again) came away with a bunch of unanswered questions. This round, I'm going to look at…


I wonder if you have had the opportunity to hear Juan Enriquez speak.

Juan Enriquez, bestselling author, businessman, and academic, is recognized as one of the world's leading authorities on the economic and political impacts of life sciences.

You can find him here : http://www.biotechonomy.com/juan.htm

I first heard him speak on TED in 2003 - and in under 32 mins he totally transformed my view of the Life Sciences - enough to get me thinking of pursuing a post graduate course in the stuff.

You can find that speech here : http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/80

Now thats good framing!! There are many others on TED who do a fine job of educating joe public like me. Craig Venter, Dan Dennet, Paul Rothemund, Sir Harlod Kroto, E.O Wilson etc. to name a few. In fact the website (www.ted.com) does a real fine job of framing science and other socio-political issues alike.

Another example of good 'framing' is E.O. Wilson's the Encyclopaedia of Life!! www.eol.org

Sorry - couldnt resist.

Capn. Nick

That all looks fine and dandy. I guess I just don't see how any of it implies that PZ and Dawkins need to shut up. Do you accept that it's not possible (or even desirable) to have one source being "The Voice of Science" (TM)?

You make a number of underlying assumptions with which I disagree, including that there are not already people doing great work explaining science to the public - including PZ, Dawkins, and others.

I also disagree with the premise that information has to be dumbed down. What is important is finding a way to get people interested and to understand that the information matters. I have been teaching evolution and climate change in ENGLISH composition classes for the past few years, mostly to a "bible banger" student population. What they appreciate is being provided information and ideas that had been denied them. We don't dumb it down - we read Pigliucci's Denying Evolution in some classes, for instance - and students, even struggling freshman writers, don't want it dumbed down. What they want is to be given a chance to learn and think, something my generally poor and poorly educated student population has not had much encouragement to do.

Which leads me to what I wanted to say when I checked in just now. I am probably one of the few Humanities Ph.D.s and teachers who read scienceblogs. As a result, I can probably provide a bit of insight into people with Nisbet's background (I cannot say anything certain about him individually since I don't know him or his academic work).

There are two points to make. First, in the Humanities (which is what Communications is, calling it Social Science notwithstanding), argument, not facts, is privileged. In other words, academic success is based upon publishing sophisticated arguments that rile up discussion; issues of being right or wrong, having practical applications, or other common-sensical expectations are not required or even all that desirable in many quarters (remember the Sokol hoax!). Indeed, a legacy of the post-structuralist '80s and '90s is the assertion that there is no such thing as "facts" or "reality." Nisbet, whether he liked such thinking or not, would had to have been exposed to both the privileging of argument and the disparagement of practical, factual applications.

Second, even in really strong academic work in the humanities, real world elements are not particularly valued. What actually works or not in the classroom tends to get less attention than theory divorced of any interest in everyday meaning or benefit. (That's why so much bad literary analysis went on those years - the text, after all, didn't matter.) For researchers, what makes nice theoretical sense often overrides reality, and I'm quite sure that is true of Nisbet based on his inability to "frame" well or see where he goes wrong.

Thus, your here unstated premise is that Nisbet does important, good work. I would question that if by important good work you mean anything that should be applied to reality.

I think that is one of the big problems here. The scientists, science writers, and science buffs who make up most of the audience believe in a scientific method that is nowhere to be found within the Humanities. And remember I say that as a practicing member of a Humanities discipline who has been fighting *that* battle for some time.

Let me hasten to add that there is a great deal that the humanities can bring to this discussion (and I've tried that, in fact, responding to your invitation for people to write with non-traditional experiences, but neither you nor Sheril saw fit to write back) and that scientists who are aware of what I have mentioned above should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Nowhere is more on the front lines of this communication of science issue than a freshman composition course. Finding ways to encourage more comp programs to do what mine does would be a great way to communicate.

"So what exactly do people reject?"

So far, nothing. Those general principles are nothing but good stuff. I think that the disagreements begin when we get into the specifics. And, in particular, those statements presented as logical conclusions drawn from what precedes :

- We shouldn't shock the audience of the common people with religious beliefs and no science education, or almost. Which means that we shouldn't let vocal atheists speak in their direction.

- Bad publicity is always publicity, so we shouldn't point the fallacies of creationists, global warming deniers, anti-vaxers, etc. It's no use, as the unwashed public wouldn't understand. And we shouldn't confront them either, because we'd appear as the bad guys and it would be good for them. So the only correct answer is silence.

Now, what exactly is there that people WOULDN'T reject... ?

By Christophe Thill (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

I have to agree with Cain, at least somewhat. I think a great deal of the antipathy that's been generated toward the entire framing concept has been the result of what seems (at least to me) to be Matt's insistence on linking his personal opposition to PZ and Dawkins with the concept of framing. It also seems to me that some of Matt's behavior (such as his loaded AAAS panel) has been a contributing factor.

Thanks, folks. I am trying to establish the common ground first. I know people disagree with some of Nisbet's applications to evolution. We will get to those. Let's just establish the baseline, though, okay?

I agree with most of your points here, but I don't see the connection with the PZ/Expelled incident. One of the primary take-away messages from your above points, as I see it, is that we need to reach out to these members of the public ("mushy middle") on their own turf, because they're not tuning in to scientific information sources. By that logic, that group is not visiting Pharyngula or any of the other ScienceBlogs sites and they are likely completely unaware of this dust-up, as big as it seems to those of us who have closely followed it. Why do scientists such as PZ and Richard Dawkins have to muzzle themselves on their own websites if the entire premise of framing is based on the idea that the group we're trying to reach aren't reading their websites anyway? Why can't scientists have this space where we can parse ideas and have free and open communication (an essential facet of the scientific method), then have a separate but connected group of people essentially "translating" the appropriate information and messages to the general public? This is how I've always viewed science framing. We can't muzzle the scientists and dumb-down cutting-edge research in order to communicate to the lowest common denominator - that would be devastating for science!

Hi Chris,

I think that framing is a concept that makes a lot of sense in theory, but is difficult to administer in practice. In your first assumption you refer to "polarized camps" - which suggests that there are two positions on an issue, and also suggesting that the goal of one camp is to bring people from the other camp closer toward their own end of the continuum. Those are leaps, and won't apply in every case that arises.

To use this blow-up over Expelled as an example - it is clear that Science is not a monolithic entity that has a nicely wrapped single message that it wants to communicate. In fact, there are countless people bringing their own goals to the discussion. Your presentation of framing in the post doesn't seem to allow for discussions that have multiple framers participating at the same time. Especially in science, it seems ineffective to use a strategy that only recognizes the possibility of polarized discussions.

It's a fine goal, and improving science communication is important. I hope this discussion that Expelled brought to the forefront is productive.

I think I understand what you are advocating and I think it will work for specific issues. I also don't think it should be dismissed or derided, as many have been doing as of late. It is essential to consider our strategy when addressing the public, and you have starting an important conversation. However, I think that instead of focusing our efforts on convincing the public to see it our way on each specific issue, we should work on trying to change number three in your premises. I don't think getting people to accept scientific truths for the wrong reasons should be what we are aiming for. I understand that it is important to push some issues, like global warming, because it is an urgent problem. But for issues such as evolution, in which convincing the general public is not QUITE as urgent, we should aim to get them to accept it for the same reasons that the science community does: because all the evidence is there. I know this is not currently how most Americans decide what to believe, but that is what we should be trying to change. We shouldn't be telling people: "this scientific theory doesn't conflict with your belief system, so don't worry your pretty little heads about it and just take our word for it." Instead we should try to promote critical thought and rational inquiry, and hopefully people will be able to come to the right decisions on their own.

Maybe this is too idealistic...but personally I think that accepting a beautiful theory like evolution for the wrong reasons is just as bad as not accepting it all all. I hope I'm not misunderstanding you premises, and if I am, please correct me.

Well, if I can add another layer to the discussion, one thing we haven't discussed is the culture war (I'm a big fan of how journalism professor Jay Rosen refers to it on his blog, Pressthink). The culture war is a great way that the Right has devised to distract people from things that matter. If you want to outrage people, just invoke the culture war. Then they won't pay attention to the facts underlying climate change, evolution, stem cell research, etc. When you invoke the culture war, you play on their turf. Outrage over wedge issues is their stock in trade.

Now, as I alluded to in the other thread, I get the sense that the New Atheist crowd craves invoking the culture war. They actually want one. Is that a good idea? Isn't the job of promoting these issues better done outside the culture war, which tends to be conducted with all the nuance of World Federation Wrestling?

(By the way, I'm not defending Nisbet. I don't really feel close enough to the story to know whether he gave good advice or not.)

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

I don't think there's anything hugely controversial in what you said so far. The big blowup was over something entirely different. Two things, as far as I can see:

1. Disagreement on agenda. Bloggers like PZ Myers have a different agenda than Matt Nisbet. It also happens that PZ dislikes the notion of framing and has said so. However, much of the problems started when these two got issues conflated (and as far as I can tell, we're still there). PZ wants to include religion in the discussion. Nisbet doesn't. This does not mean that the disagreement is about whether science needs to be communicated effectively.

2. Telling other people to shut up really, really, doesn't go across well. I don't expect that to change.

By Brain Hertz (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

For me there are a couple of issues. Framing feels like I'm being told I need to say something a certain way. From way back in grammar school with the nuns, this has not worked out really well for me. Just a personality thing.

Conflicting framing is making my head spin. On Sunday I was told by a major climate activist that the Earth Hour thing was bad framing. Other climate activists say it was a great thing. Whose frame is the right frame? Is there a right frame?

But ultimately I think that people hear differently. Some need data (me). Some need images. Some need audio. The stuff I see being "framed" for me usually goes right over my head. So I guess I kinda dismiss the concept from that perspective.

My 2 cents.

I sort of reject #5.

It speaks to the goals of an unspecified "you". You, Mooney, as a proselytizer for good science communication might want good control and framing of your presentation, while a crusty scientist like Gray or PZ might not care so much about the audience as what they believe in as the science. "You" being scienceblogs as a portal, might want to have sensational bloggers to increase page hits. And finally, "you", being some group of self-identified enlightened individuals, might not have a truly shared goal worth expressing.

What is the "you" that should do the communicating? And for those who are not included in that group, what should they do?


Furthermore, I suspect that part of the confusion in the mind of the public lies in the use of euphemisms like "develop" and "change through time," rather than what we really mean, which is evolve.

What do we do? For starters, we all have to understand the crucial role that evolution plays in our lives. Doctors need Darwin, and the media has to stop using vague terminology that makes it sound as if bacteria were suddenly, inexplicably motivated to deter penicillin through spite.


These two sentences and the whole article are really common sense directions for FRAMING the reason we ought not be afraid of Darwin.

We need to use correct words- kind of like the evolution of pee pee to penis - in other words collectively we have to grow up and use the correct terminology, and not try to soften the impact of a word. (Hey, I think I read something like this on SB..)

And we need to teach(and learn) that biology happens. Just plain and simple, even with our collective fears of it, it actually just goes on.

So, this lady used the big word- EVOLUTION- and explained why it is affecting us today. You framers can learn from that. It is simple succinct and truthful. Kind of like PZ's article about being Expelled, and his subsequent reply to Nisbet.


Reading what PZ has had to say about framing it is clear that when it was first proposed he was not hostile to it, but wanted to know more about how it could be used.

Where framing ran into problems was not in the basic premise, after all that would seem to be pretty sensible, but in how you and Nisbett saw it being used. To give an example, Nisbett states that studying science need not mean one has to adopt an atheist world view, and he is right when he says that. However the evidence does suggest that studying science does increase the likelihood of a person modifying the religious views, either by becoming an atheist or rejecting the more fundamentalist aspects of religion.

For Dawkins, PZ and a good number of others a major, probably the major, influence on their becoming atheists was their increasing understanding of science as adolescents and young men. So when creationists claim that studying evolution can turn you into an atheist they are not totally wrong. They are not right in their reasoning of course, but the simple fact is that a fair number of people exposed to what science actually says, rather than what creationists say it says, will reject religious dogma that is in conflict with scientific understanding. Where the person's religious views end up will, I suspect, depend on where they started. The more fundamentalist the original position the more likely the person is to retain some religious belief, whereas those with moderate beliefs to begin with may end up rejecting religion altogether.

So we have the fact that studying science does tend to change religious views, but the way framing has been put forward one gets the impression that this fact should be hidden from the public at all costs.

Another issue that I see that causes people to have issues with framing is the tacit assumption it seems to have that the general public are unable to understand that people may have more than one message to get across. Dawkins, for example, has an message about atheism to get across but he also has a message about evolution to get across. Framing seems to reject the idea that people could read Dawkins on evolution and accept what he has to say whilst rejecting what he has to say about the existence of god. To offer an analogy, people can often see the sense in a particular policy being presented by a politician whilst rejecting most of what else that politician has to say.

So to sum up, I do not think it is the actual concept of framing that is the problem, but the way is has been suggested it be used that people have taken issue with. To offer another example, the NCSE (I think) recently published a book intended for the general public on evolution. In it they state that there is no conflict between science and religion. Now a good number of scientists accept that, but the statement is misleading because it ignores the fact that there are a good number of scientists who do think that there is a conflict between science and religion (or at least religion as normally understood. Where religion has ceased to suggest that divine intervention takes place then the conflict pretty much disappears). Some of those who support framing have welcomed this book, whilst those who oppose framing have pointed out that it is not giving a truthful explanation of the real situation.

By Matt Penfold (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

"Often, it will be important to emphasize other aspects of the issues--moral, economic, and so on."

That is where my issue lies. It's not acctually an issue with the theory that we ought to do this, but more an issue with the reality of doing it. Our society seems to put science in the role of figuring out what, and nothing more. Religion on the other hand seems to have very few boundaries limiting what it can comment on.

Religion informs science = A Okay. Science informs religion = evil Darwinist bent on turning your children into amoral heathens.

I think that the framing camp doesn't address how to break this frame, while the "New Atheists" are trying to break that frame. There are certainly merits to both sides, but in the expelled case, I think the framing group was flat wrong. However, I think with most mainstream religious people, the approach laid out by the framers is reasonable, and likely to be effective.

I disagree with #6, the actual framing part, at least in many cases. It looks like disingenuous spin, particularly when done badly, and I think will result in scientists looking more and more like politicians (which would presumably be a bad thing, given how little people trust politicians).

I think honestly stating you position, calmly, respectfully, and consistently, while backing it up with as much evidence as you can, will be a better long-term strategy. As Jackie says above, I think this is the way forward for evolution.

Global warming, on the other hand is more urgent, and might benefit from a framing approach.

Overall, I think framing is okay for winning battles, but a dangerous strategy for winning a war, because it leads to and erosion of trust in science. It's borrowing on credibility, and should only be used in emergencies.

2, 3, 5, 8 and likely 6 involve testable hypotheses, the validity of which can only be determined empirically. Therein lies the problem. The Sb "framers" do not appear to be able to distinguish established fact from testable hypothesis when it comes to the specific nature of a given "frame".

Dare I suggest that the appropriate "frame" for your apparent message to scientists might be to acknowledge at every turn that you are proposing hypotheses regarding what is the "best frame" and outlining ways to provide tests of the hypotheses?

I think number six is where your vision of framing falls down. As a writer and former organizer, I think the importance of understanding framing isn't to make the world to fit into people's frames but to recognize their frames and move them to a frame that fits better with the world. To stretch a metaphor, you need to know the frame is there in order break it and let people see the world outside of the painting. That's the only way create lasting change.

The concept is related to the Overton Window, where an idea transforms over time from irredeemably radical to conventional wisdom. This can happen two (at least) ways, through transformation or disruption. Transformative change is close to your vision of framing. It uses moral suasion and other arguments from within the listeners frame and leads them on an emotional and ideological journey to a (hopefully) more realistic frame.

The disruptive process is one where the frame is held up to reality until the cognitive dissonance becomes too much for the frame to survive. As Molly Ivins described the process well in her article on becoming a southern liberal. "I believe all Southern liberals come from the same starting point -- race. Once you figure out they are lying to you about race, you start to question everything. If you grew up white before the civil rights movement anywhere in the South, all grown-ups lied. They'd tell you stuff like, "Don't drink out of the colored fountain, dear, it's dirty." In the white part of town, the white fountain was always covered with chewing gum and the marks of grubby kids' paws, and the colored fountain was always clean. Children can be horribly logical." Much of the civil rights movement was disruptive frame breaking. When blacks voted, ate at "white" lunch counters, had equal access to education and jobs, even married outside their race, the world didn't end, and it became much harder to maintain a racist frame.

The point of this is not that one method of moving or breaking people's frames is better than the other. THEY BOTH CAN WORK!!! Which to use is just a matter of strategy and tactics and not a law of nature. I don't think you and Nisbit give people enough credit that people can change their way of thinking. I think PZ could be less of an ass with his attitude sometimes, but I think over the long run, his method of communicating is as likely to be successful as trying to persuade the faith community that the moral implications of poisoning the world and using war for political gain are more important than what some ancient document says about how people use their naughty bits.

By justawriter (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

I agree with most of the comments above. I don't have a big problem with this list, though I think you start to run into problems in #8: "it ought to be possible to come up with a communication strategy that should work on a given scientific issue. . . ."

First is the problem of actually applying this: going from "it ought to be possible" to "here is the best communication strategy on Issue X."

Second, there's the unstated assumption that there should be "a" communication strategy -- that everyone should speak with one voice. As has been pointed out above, not everyone shares the same agenda. Some people aren't willing to muzzle their views on religion, because they think that speaking out on religion is worthwhile, too.

Third, there's the problem of "who decides?" Contrary to the caricature of creationists, alt-med practitioners, and so on, there is so Central Scientific Establishment. So who's going to decide what conclusions to draw from all this intensive research you propose? And what if there's disagreement? On scientific issues, individuals just conduct and publish their own research, and through the process of peer review, critical inquiry, follow-up research etc. we hope to reach a consensus. We don't tell individual scientists to stop researching a particular theory because it's not the approved one. But that kind of top-down, dictatorial approach seems to be exactly what The Framers want, especially when they tell particular people to shut up.

If different scientists speaking out using different communications strategies to pursue their different goals makes The Framers' job harder -- well, then your job is harder. I don't see an alternative.

This communciation scholar suggests that there is no empiral evidence of points (6,7,8) overcoming points (3,4). Looks good on paper but there is no real world antecedent analogous to the present issues. The assumptions are flawed.

By Winnebago (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

5. "you have to do more with your communication strategy than simply informing people about the details of science"

Duh. I was thinking all along that scientific papers and conferences were all that was needed to educate the public.

6. "you have to pare down these highly complex issues"

Maybe science can be entertaining instead of dumbed down? It can be on its own or when good writers like Dawkins (or Gould, Sagan, Feynman, ...) describe it.

7. More or less says the same thing as 4., and here too, in the competition for ears and eyeballs, it seems that Dawkins has proven himself, being a regular guests of TV, radio, and newspapers.

8. "All of this leads to the following conclusion"... I fail to see how the conclusion is reached from the premises. The idea that one "communication strategy" should be defined (by who?) and sticked to by all is ludicrous.

There is still *no* case for asking anybody to shut up about this subject. There is enough room and work for many different voices. Dawkins and Myers (and others like Randi and Hitchens) have been effectively promoting science and atheism. You've had some success with your books too: good for you and your readership. Use your own voice and make good, but please stop giving condescending advice to Dawkins and Myers!

By Ph(i)Nk 0 (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

Just reading the comments...this is looking to be a useful exercise...please give a number of the premise you disagree with, and please forget applications to specific issues like evolution for now, okay? This is an ongoing dialogue. It may take all month. We will get to everything, I promise.

I think you have completely missed the point of the request for getting to substance.

I was skeptical of your first "framer culpa" post, but ready to listen for what came next. Basically, your first post tried to spin the whole thing as a failure to communicate your point. Unfortunately, your second is still just trying to back up and try again to make your case.

That's not what people were asking. They wanted you to deal with specific criticisms and refutations that were already on the table in response to several of your posts on the subject.

For example, quoting the comment from Siamang, March 31, 2008 6:44 PM:

To date neither Mooney nor Nisbet has responded to the SUBSTANCE of the substantial criticisms of the "Enablers" post, the "This helps Ben Stein" post, the "Let others stand for science" post.


My advice? When you notice that you've said something that causes a firestorm, and just about all the people who should be your allies have turned against you... ADDRESS IT before igniting another firestorm. Go point by point. Respond.

and then in a followup:

In retrospect, this thread has not quite lived up to being a mea culpa. It seems to be more of "I was right, I just didn't frame it very well." Or, "No, really, that used Yugo is a **great** car! I just didn't do a good enough job selling it to you."

I agree with Siamang on this. All I see here is another missed chance to give a real engagement with specific criticisms, replaced by an attempt to make a better sales pitch.

Now I appreciate that you've got a lot of comments to deal with, and how overwhelming it must be. Some folks are not going to be satisfied by anything you do, at this point. Many others bear you considerable good will from the past and find the self-examination encouraging, but even most of those (as I read the comments) feel you're still not getting it. For myself, I'm happy to give you space and time to address the matter as you think best, and I'm willing to listen. But this post here is not at all encouraging. The devil is in the details.

Take a simple example. PZ Myers did a terrific job of getting across problems with the Expelled movie in his followup to his own expulsion. The "frame", if you like, was simple and direct, and required no difficult scientific details. PZ Myers provided us all with a magnificent opportunity to make a hard hitting effective response that fits all your points listed here to a T. Heaps of people took up that opportunity, and it worked.

A glaring exception, however, was Nisbet and the Intersection. Incredibly, Nisbet tried to bring it all back to religion and athiesm and a call for PZ to stand down, and the Intersection backed him up, got into vapours about a well deserved rude word, and -- in a fit of profound stupidity that still has me reeling -- took at face value the spin of Kevin Miller wanting to hug PZ.

There is simply no credible way I can see at all for you to deal with your posts "This Controversy HELPS Ben Stein, People", or "Expelled Screenwriter Wants to Give PZ and Atheist Followers a 'Group Hug'", other than a frank - "I was wrong". Because you were indeed completely wrong there.

Furthermore, your response to criticism there was truly appalling. In both posts you spoke of how clueless "our side" was, and disparaged our critical faculties. Then, in the comments, you made no credible defense to real responses, but focused on the fact you were getting abused as some weird kind of self-justification. You ignored posts that robustly engaged your thesis, and just blew off the whole thing. We got this "frame" from you:

These reactions--often nasty, rarely intellectually serious--really don't make me want to explain myself further. Nisbet and I would much rather make the case before thoughtful public audiences that are engaged and ask questions--and especially before young scientists who actually want to learn something about communication.

That was really insulting of you, Chris, to a lot of thoughtful contributors whom you just ignored.

If you've changed your mind about wanting to explain yourself to your many critics in the blogsphere, you won't be able to do it just trying to reconstruct the whole framing thesis from the ground up. You have to give a substantive response to genuine specific criticisms over the details.

You should give serious consideration to doing that not with more worries about having failed to make your point or explain it well, but with a frank acknowledgement of where you were actually wrong. You've been the gift to Expelled recently; you've certainly got their endorsement. Doesn't that tell you anything?


But the points we disagree with may be issue specific. Isn't it fair enough that people qualify under what circumstances they agree or disagree with a point? Because that seems to be what a lot of people are doing.

Points 2 and 3 resonate with me in my field, where I basically have to convince people to do things even though most will never really understand the details. Mostly I have to convince them, for instance, that taking a handful of pills is "good for the heart".

Where it breaks down for me is this: I don't lie to my patients. If they, for ex, tell me that they are going to a homeopath, I tell them (nicely) that they are wasting time and money for no health benefit. I don't say, "well, OK, as long as you follow my advice as well."

Evolutionary biology doesn't have anything to say about religion. It is, after all, about animals, plants, viruses, and so forth. On the other hand, there is lots of empirical evidence that accepting evolution correlates with disbelief, and I doubt if anybody seriously believes that learning more about how nature actually operates is going to bolster very many people's faith in traditional theological ideas. Logically, it could. In fact it doesn't. If framing amounts to talking up the formal neutrality of science with respect to religion in order to fool people into thinking that it isn't a practical threat to traditional religion, it is simply dishonest. Now that doesn't mean that framing is rhetorically ineffective; and while theists tend to be humorless when it comes to the morality of lying, rhetoricians (i.e. communications professors) famously are not. On the score of effectiveness, I don't claim to know whether or not the framing approach to talking about evolution is effective or not, though I think most Fundamentalists see through the sophistry in short order. Maybe it does serve to give people who don't really care about religion but want to appear "spiritual," thus providing them a way of finessing the contradiction between faith and science by allowing them to connive in the fraudulent implication that there isn't one.

Framing aside, I think the single most important thing in speaking about evolution or any other scientific issue to the general public is to recognize that the audience is incredibly ignorant. In my experience, scientists have a terrible time recognizing this fact and almost always talk way above the heads of their listeners. The issue isn't that people are stupid--they aren't--or that they should be talked down to, but that the conversation has to begin where they are at.

By Jim Harrison (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

#6 and #8 caught my attention:

#6: "selectively highlighting just those aspects of the issue that will resonate with the core values of the particular audience".

I think this misses the overton window ideas as has been mentioned upthread -- tailoring a message to a particular audience's frame isn't always going to work, because sometimes the audience's frame is a major part of the problem. In these cases we need to break, or shift, the frame, not work within it.

#8: "polling, focus grouping, media research, frame analysis, etc".

This, to me, stings of politics. The more scientists appear as politicians, the less their credibility will be. I think in the long run, it is more important for people to realize, to trust, that science is, when taken as a whole, *not* like politics. Science is about nature, measurements, experiments, facts. I'd rather have people think science is true but irrelevant, than relevant but corrupt.

Chris, before you embark on a month-long discussion about the minutia of framing, address Duae Quartunciae's post. It is a perfect synopsis of the problems most Sb readers have had with the actions of you and Matt over the past week. Do so competently and you will salvage a lot of the respect that you recently lost around here.

Most of these premises sound like topics addressed in the social psychological literature...

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

Sherif (1956, 1965) Robbers Cave Experiment: Polarization/partisan effects arise primarily in situations emphasizing competition and differences rather than cooperation and similarities.

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

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

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

Petty and Cacioppo (1986) dual-process model of persuasion: People who think critically about information follow a central-route to persuasion and are influenced by the strength and quality of arguments. People who do not think carefully about information follow a peripheral-route to persuasion and focus on superficial cues. Which route is selected depends on a recipient's ability and motivation. An intelligent, educated and motivated recipient will use the central route; less intelligent, less educated and unmotivated recipients will use the peripheral route.

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

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

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

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

Sounds like the framing construct draws heavily on the assumption that altering the nature of the message is critical to persuasion. That would be true if you somehow develop a way of converting every potential listener into a central route processor, which will require a tactic of enhancing the ability and motivation of persons with non-scientific inclinations.

Perhaps this can be achieved by altering the nature of the message. But more likely, you'd have to enhance the credibility of the messenger. For example, a perfectly framed science message is more likely to trigger central route processing in non-science enthusiasts when the message comes from a respected religious or spiritual figure (Dalai Lama or pope maybe?) than a staunch atheist.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

Nisbet and I have made a lot of mistakes. Not all the same mistakes. But lots of mistakes. We will get to that. But please, let me go about addressing it all in my own way.

Having clumsily charged a pedestrian in your hybrid car, you are now trying to win over witnesses by arguing that your hybrid car is a wonderful, environmentally sound choice of vehicle. The qualities of your car are not the primary issue.

Chris, I am one of those who bears you considerable good will, and am willing for you to go about addressing things in your own way. I think you're doing it badly so far, but I am still listening, and will continue to do so.

I'm not sure if you are aware, but my name in real life is Chris Ho-Stuart. We met in Sydney, and my autographed copy of your book on the Republican War on Science remains for me a valued memento of that. Just to let you put a face with my remarks.

At the start of this post, you say:

People on the last comments thread, though, seem impatient for me to get to "substance." So I thought a slight deviation in my plan would be both more satisfying to them, and also quite illuminating.

That suggested to me that you were not merely trying to do things your own way, but actually adapt to concerns of your commenters. I think you failed in that aim, and that this post will not be at all satisfying to any of the posters who raised the matter of "substance".

Carry on as you consider best; you can do no other. You have my ear. But the dialog will continue to include criticisms and disagreements; and my attempt to point out where you have (apparently) totally misinterpreted the request for substance is a part of what is intended to be helpful criticism.

Okay Chris/Duae, but I need people to understand how all of this happened, not just take a pound of flesh and move on. I want this to be a productive exercise. I am not ready to deal with the Expelled stuff yet, or evolution, because I want to take this in sequence, and there is a lot to say.

Australia was part of the issue believe it or not. The framing science thing originally flared up while I was in Australia and Nisbet was doing most of the responding on blogs while I was disengaged. And frankly, he didn't know how, things got polarized, he made the problem worse, etc.

We will get to all of that, if you will just let me. You will see why I need to do it in narrative form.

I reject your points 5 and 6.

It's a demeaning opinion of the public, and it assumes that the only way to approach people is to "pare down" the ideas. I think this is false. I can agree with the general idea of framing as a tool to get people to pay attention, but I think you're going in the wrong direction.

Science educators need to get people to accept new ideas, and they have the goal of having people learn more. You and Matt are too mired in the politics, where the idea is to get people to shift more laterally, to get them to back something without necessarily expecting them to actually acquire new information. Feed their frame, don't expect them to actually change substantively, but get them to adopt a policy in a way that doesn't require them to actually change attitudes or beliefs. That's fine if you're trying to get them to vote on a bill, but I'm not interested in that.

We want to challenge people, we want to annoy them and shake them up, we want to make them rethink, we want to make them absorb new information and come out of the process smarter. "Framing", as you and Nisbet have presented it, makes all that undesirable. It's actually a process for preserving the status quo, and if you dislike the status quo, it's going to be the opposite of what we want to do.

I reject the use of "Rather" as the header for a numbered bullet point.

While that unstubstantive t is a highly complaint, I think even the form of your summary could be improved. Starting bullet headers withe "Rather" "Furthermore" and "Therefore" shows poor layout for your case.

Thanks, PZ.

To clarify: Do you reject 5 and 6 for evolution, or in general?

I mean, 5 and 6 might be very good for moving the public on stem cell research, or global warming--issues that we need a political resolution on relatively quickly. Would you agree with that?

Maybe we can just box evolution and at least recognize that it is different somehow for a lot of us. What do you think?

...however, at least your proof reading is much better than mine...

All this discussion of if and how to frame the message of science to the general public is worthy of the highest ivory tower in academe.
It completely ignores the changed nature of the audience.
In any previous century strategic framing may have been viable, but, when anyone can access all the information excluded by a framed presentation via a few clicks of a search engine, it is counter productive to attempt such exclusion.
One may address a mesage to a well defined audience in such a way as to lead them gently towards the truth but any attempt to pander to their prejudices will be quickly exposed.

I think that instead of focusing our efforts on convincing the public to see it our way on each specific issue, we should work on trying to change number three in your premises. I don't think getting people to accept scientific truths for the wrong reasons should be what we are aiming for.

I completely agree. The motivation for framing seems to be the assumption that the public can't think critically, and that we can't teach them to. As a result, we have to rely on what are essentially the same propaganda techniques as our opponents. This may very well work for specific issues in the short term, but it doesn't solve the larger problem, which is irrational thinking and beliefs. If we leave those untouched, we're just playing whack-a-mole with these issues, and are continually vulnerable to the possibility that our opponents will hit on some more successful frame (such as "if you believe in evolution you are going to hell").

The approach is also pretty patronizing to the target audience -- no matter how rude some folks find PZ and Dawkins, they always actively engage in the arguments of their opponents, which to my view is far more respectful than patting the public on the head and saying "There, there, science is hard, but look at all the goodies it gives you!"

If we simply frame each separate science-related issue in terms of non-science benefits, we may make short-term political progress on those issues, but we are not helping science in the long term. and it will continually be vulnerable to the political fallout of irrational beliefs. Indeed, framing seems to put science on exactly the same footing as those beliefs, making acceptance of science essentially a socio-political issue. This approach gives up the most powerful feature of science, that it produces truth about the world (or at least, approximates truth far better than any other system). If you abandon defending that, you've given away your most potent weapon.

Instead, the "frame" I want to see promoted is that "rationality is the best way to understand the world". If we emphasize that frame, we promote science as a whole, and we inoculate our culture against future irrationality. In my view, this is essentially what PZ and Dawkins see as their substantive goal, and to me, in the long term, that is the right goal.

(We can argue about the appropriate way to reach this substantive goal, and whether "vigorous language" is helpful or not. But if we think that the mere challenging of irrational beliefs, however politely, is somehow wrong, I think we've lost our way.)

The motivation for framing seems to be the assumption that the public can't think critically, and that we can't teach them to.

George Lakoff argues that unfortunately, when you look at things historically, people can't be relied on for this:

[W]ithin traditional liberalism you have a history of rational thought that was born out of the Enlightenment: all meanings should be literal, and everything should follow logically. So if you just tell people the facts, that should be enough -- the truth shall set you free. All people are fully rational, so if you tell them the truth, they should reach the right conclusions. That, of course, has been a disaster.

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

Chris C. Mooney | March 23, 2008 11:42 PM:

"These reactions--often nasty, rarely intellectually serious--really don't make me want to explain myself further. Nisbet and I would much rather make the case before thoughtful public audiences that are engaged and ask questions--and especially before young scientists who actually want to learn something about communication."

Now: Chris seems to be much, much more humble. Is there a possibility that the audience at Princeton/Georgia had critical questions regarding Expelledgate, which made Chris change his mind about the value of debating online?

I agree with Nicole's comment above. I absolutely fail to see where "framing science" has anything at all to do with your and Nisbet's challenges to PZ and Dawkins *at the point in time* where you did. At that point, the entire "Expelled from Expelled!" event had nothing whatever to do with either science or religion; it was simply (and effectively) exposing the hypocrisy of the Expelled! producers and the way *they are framing* their publicity.

I may be eventually be amenable to a rational discussion of the role of framing in the overall promotion of science to John Q. Public, but until you address the colossal blunder of telling PZ and Dawkins (or anyone else) to shut up (in any context), I'm not quite ready for totally dispassionate discussion.

I don't think evolution is a special case. I reject 5 and 6 for other questions, too.

I don't want people to support environmentalism or stem cell research because they've succumbed to the latest jingo -- I want them to understand the issues and make informed decisions.

For instance, I'm not a big fan of this recent "earth hour" business. I don't see how it helps people understand the problems, and it doesn't even seem to address any problems -- it's encouraging people to flip a light switch and think they've made a difference. A substantive campaign would actually have people leaving an event smarter than when they went into it, whereas this one seems to make people dumber. It seems to fit with most "framing", though, and the fact that it is antithetical to good science education doesn't seem to matter.

chezjake: It was a colossal blunder to tell PZ and Dawkins to shut up. Not that I did that. Nisbet did (though not in precisely those words). If you'll be patient I'll explain how we got to that point--these kinds of fights grow out of polarization and miscommunication, those are the root causes--but it was definitely a mistake on multiple levels.

PZ, thanks, this is really helpful and clarifies important things. I'll have a lot more to say, and hopefully that may eventually leave us in a better place.

State your case, that's your right. But can you do it without being so sacchariney apologetic and kissing ass.
Your're smart, and when everything is said and done, you need to be true to yourself, even if it rumples feathers.

By ScienceFan (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

"Frame analysis" is junk science based on introspection. Unlike real science "frames" are neither objective nor empirically determinate. Thanks, Noam.

I've gotten a lot of value from Peter Senge's concept of "mental models" in his book, The Fifth Discipline, and his related books.

When I read these many comments I get the impression people have differing mental models about other people's mental models.

I find that intriguing.

So the general public won't understand the fine scientific details and need information that's been extruded from the orifice of "intensive (and expensive) research - polling, focus grouping, media research, and frame analysis". Great; if that needs to be done, do it. But once someone's interest has been caught by all the filtered stuff, where can they turn for the absolutely straight dope? I bet not many people leave Pharyngula thinking "wow, that's an overrefined and overmanaged message. I wonder what they guy really thinks?"

What I really like about SB is that it isn't advertising and it isn't journalism. I can send someone a link and know it isn't just another article in Parade magazine.

I am really looking forward to your explanation of how your fellow framers "got to the point" of telling two super-successful communicators to pipe down. Seriously.

Some comments on PZ's comments.

I think in the case of the "average adult", it's really too late to actually get them to acknowledge "new" information. It's hard enough to get the average joe even to upgrade a piece of software computer hardware or change how they use their TV/VCR/DVD player. Unless there is INSTANT gratification, I don't see "it's something new" really being a driver for change in people's behavior.

For the kid, yes.

For the adults back in the '50s and '60s and their intentional rejection of that which led us into the War (including that generation who were determined to send them into a war they didn't believe in), certainly.

For the modern adult who has 2.3 kids they are having trouble feeding 'cause the mortgage has gone nutso and the car broke down again last week and who knows if their job will be around tomorrow and new "culture" doesn't exist if it isn't on the main networks or MTV or on the shelves in Wal-Mart (still the #1 music seller, in spite of their insanely limited selection and intentional censorship), then I think that's a lost cause.

You're not going to get them to actually willfully "learn something new" about science.

This is where the issue of science education becomes critical - you CAN (and I know PZ works to) reach their kids and get them to care about "something new", but ONLY if you can get past the closed-minded adults who insist that their way of life (which is, to be sure, utterly miserable in its closed-case "that's all there is to know" vision of the world compared to ours) must be preserved.

So the question, the frame, is critical to getting this generation to stop interfering with our efforts to educate the next.

One the one hand seems to be Matt's approach to try to stop getting the conservative blockers to treating science as a threat to their way of life (such as it is). You can't change their values, but you can try to get through the "fear" through valid counter-examples in their own limited terms.

The other side would rather stop mincing words and just get people to WAKE UP and see the truth of what is around them, including their false prophets and power-mad leaders they've elected, and let the irrational fear go because science has given us more Hope and more examples of hopes made real than any religious document in history.

The issue there is the difference between "faith" and "trust", and its a weasel word difference the other side has attempted to use to their advantage. John A Davidson on PT once called me "one of the faithful" because I was so easily able to parrot (his term) the evolutionary explanation for some trait in spite of my not being a biologist or even a professional scientist/educator (I'm a software engineer) - it was an intentional misuse, meant to equivocate science with religion by making it seem like science-supporters like me were blindly following Sagan and Dawkins and Gould just as we accuse most religious of being sheep. This certainly was and is not so: I don't have "faith" in science. I *trust* it. I trust the process that mistakes will get corrected. I trust the process that the corrupt (Cold Fusion 1990, anyone, or even Nebraska-man) will be found out. I trust that the answer to a question creating two more questions is a GOOD thing. And that trust is built on experience.

So I can see PZ's concern in the Earth Hour example: people didn't trust the knowledge of science and scientists that conserving power was really better. They acted on faith (or on a whim). It alone, without actually being told the consequences of the act in a short enough time frame to be "instantly gratifying", isn't enough to change long-term behaviour. Acts like that won't be enough to get people to put more money into science education in this country or to get rid of the power-brokers who manipulate them into voting against science in the long run.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

I reject #17 and #156

#17: All scientists and science bloggers must understand that the highest priority is to be given to immediate promotion of "science education". To the extent that promotion of other goals (e.g. atheism, rational thought, fighting terrorism) interferes with this aim, these goals must be abandoned.

#156: A single dissenting voice spoils everything. Once we get PZ and Dawkins to shut up, we must work tirelessly to suppress the next interesting voice that links science and atheism.

I say no to number 5. I am a "science enthusiast" as it were, and I want to read things written correspondingly. If I wanted to read about science in terms that didn't require thought and acquiring background knowledge, I'd just read the newspaper's science section.

Yes, I suppose it's necessary to explain politically important issues in science to those who don't care about science, but not here. Seed and scienceblogs are alternatives to science coverage that assumes I only care if it affects me, not an improvement of the same.

By Matthew L. (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

I think you've missed the point.

What you have set out is PR advice that might, over all, be good. Well, I don't know how it is in the US but here in Australia all universities are already well-stocked with PR people who are following that sort of advice to "frame" the importance of research in science (and other fields). Some of this is also done at the national level by the universities' peak body. Huge amounts of money go into this, but I have no problem with that at all. Nor do I have a problem if scientists (and people in other fields) are trained to do some of it themselves.

Where I have a problem is when public intellectuals who take a particular philosophical position about religion - one that may be based, in part, on what they consider to be the philosophical implications of science - are told to shut up. As I've said before, those of us who take that position may make life more complicated for the PR people who have to deal with existing demographics, including religious ones. However, we have a legitimate message of our own - whether or not any particular individual agrees with it - and reasons to think our message is important. In those circumstances, Nisbet - and all those other PR people - are just going to have to adjust their strategies to the fact that we exist and will go on doing our thing. I can understand why he finds us frustrating to deal with, but that's life in a pluralistic society for you.

Far from trying to suppress the, ahem, Voices of Disbelief in our society, which has happened all too often, I think we should be doing what we can to enable them to deliver their message to the public and provide alternatives to religion. Well, that's what I think I should be doing. In fact it's one of the things I'm doing right now, in that I'm co-editing a book provisionally entitled, ahem, Voices of Disbelief. Udo Schuklenk and I have settled a list of contributors and are currently finalising negotiations with a major academic publisher, so it looks like this book will be a reality.

For the record, that's where I come from. But it's just my opinion that these voices (such as PZ's) should be encouraged. I'm not trying to impose my opinion on anyone, but I'd like to persuade more people to adopt it.

Nisbet can disagree with me, but what he can't do, unless he wants to be met with anger and outrage, is tell people like Dawkins and PZ to shut up.


The one problem I have with your list is #6. People will often have conflicting frames, and picking the appropriate one is the hard part (I know we're not supposed to discuss specifics, but that's where I get disappointed with the 'framers'). Also, frames are not static: the ascension of one frame can break or alter another.

The larger issue, and while I agree with you on the cognitive shortcuts, is that we have defined cultural and scientific literacy down. I see correct framing as a way to open the door to improving literacy so that we don't have to rely on cognitive shortcuts.

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


What you're doing here with framing is normative theory; you're generating a theory that is supposed to guide us in what we ought to be doing. Specifically, you are telling people how they ought to communicate science-influenced policy positions to the general public.
Several people have made a theory/practice distinction, and reject framing on the ground that it is merely a theory, and thus not practical. I hold a more supportive view of the role of normative theory in cases like this. But I see your argument for framing as being fundamentally misconceived, though this is apparent only once we've recognized that it is a normative and not a descriptive theory.
You approach the communication of policy positions to the general public as a practical problem, rather than as a moral problem. What you are advising is that scientists learn to manipulate the public into holding the positions they want them to. I am not suggesting that you are recommending that lying be involved; Nisbet I know explicitly rejects this. But still, what you are advocating is a form of manipulation. This, I believe, is antithetical to the values of reasoning and evidence that is the content of science itself. While name-calling and profanity are surely impolite, they are not undemocratic. Manipulation of the kind I believe is suggested by the framing thesis is antithetical to the values of public reason implicit in a constitutional democracy.
If what we want is to be the kind of society that takes science seriously, it is wrong to manipulate people into holding the right positions (though even makes the mistake of assuming that scientists are monolithic in their stands with regard to what counts as being the right position, which, when it even approaches being the case, like with climate change, is still always only approximately true). Rather, what we need to do is to be the kind of people that treat science seriously, which means engaging in arguments and citing evidence in a way that accords with our best practices and standards. I certainly do not mean to reject the idea that science needs to be communicated in a way that can be digested by many different audiences. Rather, I think it is a mistake to have as your end convincing your audience, rather than giving good reasons . The former clearly recommends manipulation as a potential tool, the latter does not.

PZ Myers: "I reject your points 5 and 6."

I can see why you'd reject point 6, since the idea of paring down almost inevitably oversimplifies, and selective highlighting at the very least comes dangerously close to spin. (One might argue that oversimplification and selective highlighting are necessary evils, though.) I'm not sure why you'd reject point 5, though, since you yourself already do more than "simply informing people about the details of science," although it is different from what Nisbet and Mooney do, to say the least.

If you have bought into the opposition's frames, you have already lost. You are playing a defensive game. The Republicans realize this -- they always phrase statements in terms of their own strengths. The Democrats have a weakness in this area -- they frame statements in Republican terms, where Repubs are strong.

Also, Republicans have been changing the frame over time, by using humor to ridicule silly things the Dems have done. The Dems stick to the same old failed defensive framing in Repub terms.

I could be said that the Repubs have failed in policy but succeeded admirably politically (or at least have been successful for a long time during policy failures).

Nisbet prefers to frame things in the creationists terms, on their grounds. Defensively. This just reinforces the meme stereotypes (e.g. atheism is bad) and does not gain any ground. Creationists gain ground by going on the attack, and creating new frames (e.g. tying evolution with Hitler, pointing out that indeed sometimes evolution knowledge does lead to atheism). Creationists win.

Myers points out hypocrisy using humor, using the creationists own attacks against them, going on the offensive. And underlining his own frame that creationism is dishonest. A strong strategic move.

Tell me which side will win in the long run, and which will lose.

By Bubba Sixpack (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

I haven't read all the comments yet, it's a long thread and I don't want to forget what I want to say. So if I'm repeating something others have said I apologize.

I would argue (with absolutely no expertise, I admit) that the real pathway to understanding will never be through the media. Rather, any real understanding can only be achieved in a classroom. Improvements in science education at the elementary and secondary level, i.e. teaching evolution seriously and not skirting it the way many teachers do, that's the way to do it. Trying to change an adult's mind after they've already decided to reject it is much harder than explaining it to someone who hasn't thought about it before.

I agree that framing in the media is important, but not exactly for the same reason I guess. From my perspective, the purpose of the media would be to convince others to get out of the way and let science teachers teach science.

And I understand that focusing on the classroom involves getting parents to understand that it's important which involves the media. But I think the ultimate focus is the classroom, and that needs to be addressed as well.

I don't think I've articulated my thoughts very well, but I hope I at least made a coherent point.

I just put up a blog post on this, but here's the key idea:

"It's hard to find a single numbered point that's definitely false. However, there are mistaken notions that seem implied in some of them, particularly 3, 5, 6, and 8. The two mistakes are:

"(1) Thinking cognitive shortcuts are an incompatible alternative to science and evidence.

"(2) Ignoring the lack of evidence for the claim that a strategy not based on science and evidence will accomplish much of anything (and ignoring the clear evidence that a science and evidence strategy works to at least some extent)."

Full version: http://uncrediblehallq.blogspot.com/2008/04/scientific-literacy-and-cog…

A commenter above equated the goal of teaching people to think critically with "just tell people the facts, that should be enough," an approach that, according to George Lakoff, has been a disaster. But surely exposing people to critical thinking is not the same thing as "just the facts"?

Chris Mooney's point 5 seems similarly slippery, for lack of a better way of putting it. Who has ever advocated, as a communication strategy, "simply informing people about the details of science"?

Moreover, point 6 is vague. What does "pare down" mean, for instance? Communicators like Myers and Dawkins seem to do a fine job of paring down complex science and making it accessible. Presumably something else is meant, but what?

Moreover, what's meant by "resonate with the core values of the particular audience"? Creating the lie that you agree with their values when you actually don't? Or something else?

Questions that need to be addressed, perhaps?

By Michael Glenn (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

On further thought, I actually reject #2 and #3. I'm an intern with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and I've listened to and participated in tours at two different federal hatcheries, most involving school groups but some involving adults. One of the things covered in the tours is why we cryopreserve sperm, another is why we bother worrying about mussels. While not insanely complicated, both of these issues can't be explained by sound bites, and in the media explaining the importance of mussels has failed in the past for this reason (if you think back to the water issues with Georgia this last year).

But, when the subject is explained by someone passionate about the subject (and who knows how to explain things to non-experts so that it doesn't immediately go over their heads), almost without fail the visitors were engaged and asked questions and didn't need a simple explanation to make them comfortable.

So I would agree with a lot of the other comments, that expecting people to be too stupid or too bored to parse the arguments does them a disservice. I think that getting information out to the public doesn't need the perfect frame, it just needs someone who's a good public speaker.

Just a couple of questions.

(1) In the big educational/legal battles of the recent past, such as Dover, who were the individuals or organizations responsible for presenting the arguments that prevailed? Were they of the PZ variety, or from some other segment of the science or education community?

(2) While PZ and Dawkins may have had influence on the personal perspectives of the individuals posting on these blogs, how successful or persuasive have they been at large? Have they transformed a creationist into a evolutionist? Have they influenced a legislative or legal initiative?

I'd like to know what their record is. I have no idea.

By Eric the Leaf (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

I just want to point out that any discussion of Framing should focus on the the audience not the message or medium. I tried yesterday to make my point but I think I could have been more clear.

The audience is the most literate, mass media consuming, advertising resistant, population in human history. Yep you are part of the audience. Framing is a technique used most effectively by conservative politicians borrowed from advertising . It is being advocated as an science communication tool. Now please think about your personal experiences dealing with framed issues you actually cared about over the last 20 years. Are you happy with what has happened? Has any one viewpoint actually won? Does Framing information help you, the audience understand it?

let me ask you again:

Does Framing information help you, the audience understand it?
If it has not, has it allowed or encouraged you to change your mind, or at least caused you to become apathetic toward whatever social concern the Framed information applied to.

Does your perception of Framed information in public discourse directed at you change your opinion of the communicator and his information? You bet it does.

I know it may seem strange to look at Framing from a non-elite scientific viewpoint but we are an audience that has been subject to Framing. I for one think it smells when I preceive it and regard it as insulting but thats just me. Maybe the vast unwashed proletarian masses like to be talked down to, or maybe they just aren't smart enough to notice as they resonate with the message.

Not sure why I'm feeling especially contrarian right now, but I'll disagree with all 8.

(1) I think talking about polarized camps is inaccurate. There are certain people at the extreme and many more people in the middle. If anything, the denialism concept fits better here. There are certain people who are actively searching for truth, certain people who have ulterior motives trying to cast doubt on facts (even if the truth seekers can't agree on a full understanding) and many people across the spectrum who don't know or care enough to distinguish between the two. I think talking about just the polarization is missing the point that many people in the middle have opinions even if they are unsure.

(2) I think this assumes the details are overly complex or "the public" is overly lazy. It really isn't hard to grasp the basic concepts on these issues without much work. We don't expect people to read textbooks, but it should be possible to give the gist of global climate change vs "global warming" or why evolution matters in a 2-5 minute interview. You can't go into all details, but the main points are possible and can hopefully encourage more searching.

(3) I'm not sure I buy this argument of relying on cues. It's more that people like simplicity and tend to accept the simplest believable answer. For a young earth creationist with no science education, "God did it" is a very simple answer. The key isn't to give a cognitive short cut, but to help people understand either why that answer isn't believable or at least why more detail helps better explain how the world works.

(4&5) 4 really doesn't lead into 5. If people can ignore stuff, they can ignore it no matter what you do. 5 seems to be false choice on a topic no one argues about. I seem very few scientists saying, "If only they read my journal article, everything would be clear." Everyone has a public communication strategy. Some are better than others and some conflict with each other. I think you are implying that there is a "best" or a combination of best communication strategies, which is what got you and Matt in trouble in the first place.

(6) I think the key bad word in this framing comment is "values." Ideally framing should be more than targeting values. It should be about putting facts in a frame that keeps people from different backgrounds interested in gaining knowledge. I'd much rather talk to someone who accepts that global temperatures are changing, but doesn't think we should do anything about it to someone who denies the reality of the changes. The framing of values is the next step of advocating policy which is, in many ways, separate from communication science.

7 to 8 is a flawed connection again. Just because not everyone reads ScienceBlogs doesn't mean an ideal plan for communication exists. We use the resources we have and try new things, but there is no one combination that will work. 7 also seems to negate the topic argument on whether certain sciencebloggers should be quiet since they don't reach their negative readership anyway.

(8) polling, focus grouping etc are all good, but I think you're missing where things went off the rails here. There are many good ways to communicate to various groups of people, but where is the evidence that not following the frame for a specific population hurst the cause? Is there really a problem with 10 people speak "on message" and another 5 are "off message"?

A commenter above equated the goal of teaching people to think critically with "just tell people the facts, that should be enough," an approach that, according to George Lakoff, has been a disaster. But surely exposing people to critical thinking is not the same thing as "just the facts"?

Sorry, I meant to post a comment clarifying what I wrote, which was vague. What I meant to say that you couldn't just lay out the facts and rely on peoples' critical thinking skills to do the rest. This is not to devalue critical thinking (which we need more of), it's just that most people are "cognitive misers" as Chris and Matt put it in one of their talks.

I believe the point is that you need to couch things in ways that make it easier for people to get a strong mental picture...

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

for Eric the Leaf,

Consider my to be a creationist to evolutionist convert due to PZ. That isn't to say that I was completely ignorant of the science but that rather I needed a 'shove' to make me realize that I didn't have to live with the conflict of what I was told and what made sense. Just don't tell my mother!!

FSM, I should preview before I post. Arrrggggg. Me not my.

I believe the point is that you need to couch things in ways that make it easier for people to get a strong mental picture...

Agreed. It seems to me that people like Myers and Dawkins are doing just that. The question for me remains whether framing as advocated by Mooney and Nisbet accomplishes the same thing.

Mooney's point 6 seems (to me) to imply not, but I'm waiting to see what else he has to say.

By Michael Glenn (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

Personally I disagree with statement #2

Most people I know (at least in my generation) will go to the internet to find out about things they don't know or don't feel well enough informed on.

We don't trust 'the man' as it were. We don't particularly read printed newspapers, and none of us believe anything we hear on the TV news anymore. And yes, this does present the problem of 'echo chambers' and the like. But Google and Wiki are our greatest and fastest sources of knowledge and we use them often and use them hard. (no need to tell me how bad that can be, I've seen the edit wars on Wiki).

My generation is plugged in and probably spends more time online than in person. If you want to win the information war start on the electronic front.

I don't find the first five points on the list too objectionable, although they're perhaps a bit pessimistic about the scientific curiosity of at least a large section of the public. Point seven also seems fine.

Points 6 and 8, on the other hand, seem a bit manipulative, if the idea is to get the public to accept the reality of something like evolution or global warming. The only intellectually honest "frame" is the one that presents the evidence with the most striking clarity. As a previous poster said, the aim should be to give good reasons for accepting a proposition, regardless of anyone's "core values".

At least in the case of global warming, arguments for the reality of the phenomenon need to be followed sooner or later by an essentially separate discussion of what to do about it. That side of the conversation really is political, economic and even moral, rather than strictly scientific, so perhaps points 6 and 8 have a limited place. Even there, however, I find the most effective participants in the discussion (as well as the most admirable) to be the ones who can make others see the value of their own sincerely held "frames", rather than making artificial attempts to pander to someone else's.

By C. Sullivan (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

Okay, I must the choir you're preaching to, cause I get the importance of Framing. I don't take for granted that general audiences care about science or facts or truths or that what I study is as interesting to anyone else but me and few of my rare very nedry friends. Even my own family bushes me off. Especially since my main focus is reaching and under-served/under-represented audience, i.e. African-Americans, this issue is essential. Even though I take a stab at it, it isn't easy. That's the rub.

See additional comments at

Response to the CORE VALUES arguement. It isn't about manipulating people. It's about identifying those "universals" that everyone can surely relate to.

As I learned from my NAI interpretive guide class, Universal values are those intangible values that reach out to any audience member regardless of demographic or status. Examples include - shelter, protection, love, family, feeling safe, hunger, etc.

When sharing environmental lessons to audiences, interpreters try to relate to the audience. For example, let's say I want to try to get the audience to understand and relate to a complex topic like protecting water sheds. I can present info about water sheds - definitions, examples, etc, and I will. But how do you get people "hooked in" so that they "want" to not only learn about water sheds, but care enough to not contaminate the water shed? Appeal to a universal value - the need for everyone and every living thing to drink fresh clean water for survival.

It's not manipulative in the sense that people are being deceived, but it's about relating to people in such a way that they become compelled to think and perhaps act.

I reject #6. I don't think you can "pare down" science into little feel-good sound bites without utterly destroying, or at least seriously impairing, its message and power.

Instead of watering science down to the level of the least intellectually curious member of Fox News' demographic, I think we need to explain to people why caring and learning about the science behind these issues (evolution, global warming, etc.) are in their best interests. Pull those people up, don't water science down.

And yes, that means a certain segment of the population (we'll call them morons) won't ever be made to see the value of scientific knowledge. However, I fail to these why these hopeless cases should dictate the level of scientific discourse in this country.

Does that mean I'm against framing?

"I reject #6. I don't think you can "pare down" science into little feel-good sound bites without utterly destroying, or at least seriously impairing, its message and power"

We do it all the time. We don't teach calculus to most high school physics students, which means we are "dumbing" down. We simplify science every day. It's part of teaching.


I thought some more about the whole matter. You seem to think you're going back to basics with your 8 points reasoning. Actually, I think there's more basic than this. I think it all rests on an unspoken model that underpins it, and whose elements themselves can be disputed. This is how I see it.

The situation is a game, in the sense of game theory. There's an actor that we'll call "Us", or "the Camp of Reason" (a little bit of caricature never hurts). The aim of this actor is to win the Masses, or the "General Public". The Masses are not viewed as an actor themselves, but rather at a resource at stake, which can be won or lost.

Or course, the game is complicated by the fact that there's a second actor: "Them", or "the Camp of Unreason". They are competing with Us for the Masses' hearts and minds.

They have a headstart, because science, its reasonings and complexities are generally handicapped when competing with belief and the simplicity of gut feeling. The Masses having little or no science education, they can't be expected to be sensitive to factual and scientific arguments on their own strength. Those can be effective, but only if properly "framed".

Among Us, at least 2 concentric circles exist. At the core are scientists, the producers of new knowledge. Around them is a circle of communicators and enthusiasts, such as the average SB reader. On the other hand, although They comprise of many different types of individuals and institutions (TV channels, newspapers, websites, churches, political organisations...) They are mostly a homogenous group, at least as far as the content of their speech is concerned.

Now, I don't know if this little story correctly expresses the underlying assumptions, but it seems to me that it does. Already I see a few points in it that could be disputed. For example, I think the Masses are actually several separate groups or segments, more or less open to scientific discourse. Also, we know that there's some homogeneity among "Them" : creationists tend to be global warming deniers, anti-vaxers, etc. But it's actually a set of positions derived from a common source : the proximity with fundamentalist religion. Etc.

Hope it helped...

By Christophe Thill (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

Scote, simplifying is one thing. Giving people only conclusions without offering how science arrived at them is another. Sometimes you do need to show your work, especially if your goal is changing minds.

Is there an award for Most Boring On-line Discussion? If so, this one has to be the lead contender for 2008. And the best part is the discussion is supposed to be about communicating better. This is why the public has limited interest in science. The people who think they know how to communicate it are themselves a bunch of tedious bores.

By Tired Reader (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

Oh, and I forgot a little note :

People in marketing sometimes say that your best customers are the ones who know you the least (so never forget to tell them everything about what you can do for them). I think it's already been noted that a large percet of people accepting evolution, or global warming, or whatever, would not be a victory in itself (in other words, we can also discuss the "stakes" aspect of my little fantasy model). The point is not to give the right answer in a poll. It's to be able to understand why you think what you think. I'd like to ask more questions to those who answered they "believe in evolution". What do they mean by that ? How many would mention an inherent tendancy to progress ? How many get the bases of natural selection ? What do we really want ? Is it just a case of gathering enough people around us, so that pro-sciences laws would be sure to pass while pro-ID ones wouldn't ? Do we just want a crowd of supporters who cando what's right at the right moment ? Or is it more than this ?

By Christophe Thill (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink


you say :

"(if you want to) move this broad public on these highly complex and politicized issues, you have to do more with your communication strategy than simply informing people about the details of science."

Correct ! You have to do a lot more, you have to cultivate a notion which has been greatly diminished through years of infantilization through framing and marketing, that of critical thinking.

Because here is the fundamental problem with "framing", your opponents use the same technique over and over again, and they are better at it, because they'd rather have people not think critically.

By negentropyeater (not verified) on 01 Apr 2008 #permalink

At this point, I don't really care what sort of convoluted rationalizations led you pro-Framing types to do remarkably moronic stuff like telling PZ & others to shut up, repeatedly telling PZ & others to shut up (yes, I consider the recidivism to be a separate example of stoopidity over and above the original offense), and getting your knickers in a twist over how awful it is that those Icky Atheists⢠are so uncouth as to actually say mean things about the deceitful weasels who are blaming Evilootion for all the world's ills & doing their damnedest to nuke science education in the US. Feel free to lay out, in detail, all the reasons why you decided to play a moron on the Internet; I don't give a damn, because knowing the "why" of it doesn't alter the fact that you did decide to play a moron on the Internet, nor will it alter my opinion that if your reasons lead to moronic behavior, said reasons aren't worth paying attention to. Wake me up when you decide you aren't going to play a moron on the Internet any more, mmm'kay?

As someone not connected to science in any way at all (other than a healthy reading habit and studying with the Open University at the most basic level) I love reading scienceblogs but never feel capable to comment. This debate is fascinating and prompts me to do so.

Apologies if this point has been made but it seems to me the whole idea of 'Framing', while probably a good tool politically, fails to support the one thing that Dawkins, PZ et al are trying above all to do - 'consciousness raising'. It might be useful to sway a few people in certain disputes but doesn't seem to encourage a desire to learn more about science itself. That is what Dawkins and PZ are best at in my opinion.

Just my 2p.

Chris, why haven't you been telling Eugenie Scott to shut up?
Listening to her on the current 'Skeptics Guide to the Universe' it sounds like she's completely off-frame regarding Expelled - she wouldn't shut up about the whole PZ incident and seemed to think it was the funniest thing ever - and thought everyone should know about it.
Wasn't she supposed to be the one who talked to the public while PZ and Dawkins remained silent?

Anyway that's off point to the questions you asked at the start of this thread. My opinion is that you forget that science is an international activity. Just because it might cause local problems in one area of the world (like suggesting in certain countries that people shouldn't be stoned or burned to death for being accused of being witches or gay) you cannot expect all scientists to follow some sort of imaginary party line. Evolution is not a controversy, either scientifically or politically here in Europe and much of the developed world and even the explicit linking of atheism and evolution isn't exactly a big deal since being visibly religious is not the 'norm' as it apparently is in the US. Is there even the slightest reason why we non-US based scientists should take notice of calls for silence simply to aid some sort of temporary local political problem? As an analogy would you advocate homosexual or feminist groups in the US to be quiet about equality and anti-discrimination just in case the Nigerian populace gets annoyed and starts implementing Sharia?
Both Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins have recently written books advocating evolution from a Christan perspective - the ideal spokesmen for science according to you framers (now that Eugenie is out the door) yet have they had even the slightest effect on the acceptance of evolution in your country?
And if not...... why do you put their names forward?

Actually, Sigmund, Miller and Collins have done some good work that may or may not have had an impact. Who knows? But I wholeheartedly agree with the rest of your post, and I thank you for making the point that this is pretty much a specifically American problem. I'd given up on making that point some time ago in the whole "framing" debate, because it's usually met with a resounding silence that suggests blank incomprehension.

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

A short digression: When I worked in IT in a big company I went on a course about how to build relationships with key executives of IT users. The theory was that psychologically IT people tended to deal in figures and facts, and other executives in the company tended to deal with persuasion and vision. So when a chief marketing executive said "Your damn systems are no good, they are always failing" it was no good responding "The system has been available 99.8% of the time as agreed". His/her view was formed by the frustrations of trying to do his/her job, which he/she saw marketing as vital to the success of the company. Being told that the systems (which were vital to the success of the company) worked as designed just did not align with his/her world view.

The point of my nostalgic ramblings is that if you only pander to peoples different world views, you will not change their world view. Framing appears to work best in changing peoples attitudes to a particular issue (such as global warming) but not their world view. Some scientists and/or atheists want to change the world view of their audience - I don't think framing is powerful enough or designed to do so.

Scientists (generalisation alert!) tend to have world views based on facts and figures and proof and reality. A few scientists can communicate well with members of the public, or address political issues in a political way. However most (like my IT people example above) just can't see the need to do so, as it conflicts with their world view, and framing is a toolset that they don't see the need for.

I think that persuading scientists to use framing will be very difficult. It comes across as valuing presentation more than content - and most scientists are very content orientated. Solve that problem and the world is your crustacean, as they say.

By DiscoveredJoys (not verified) on 02 Apr 2008 #permalink

Sigmund... note that it was Nisbet, not Mooney, who made the call for PZ Myers and Dawkins to shut up. Chris Mooney has already recognized that this was a mistake, in a comment just above dated "April 1, 2008 4:56 PM".

I don't blame you for missing it. It is, frankly, Chris' own fault that he's being linked with the shut up call. He failed badly in not recognizing immediately and in public that Nisbet's call was a monumental blunder. Instead, he compounded Nisbet's stupidity by spinning the Myers expulsion brouhaha as helping Ben Stein (Sheesh!) and then blowing off all criticism by ignoring substantive responses and getting huffy about those that were merely abusive. This definitely came across as support for Nisbet's call for some people to refrain from making any comment.

I think Chris should be much clearer with his recognition of the error in calling for PZ and Dawkins to shut up. It should have been right up front in a blog post, rather lost in the comment stream here.

I'm still hopeful that Chris will eventually get around to the substance that commenters spoke of in response to the "framer culpa" post. He's promised to do so; but as matters stand all the substantive criticism (which was not all abusive by any means) is still left hanging.

Sorry, I digress. The point is: asking why Chris doesn't ask Eugenie Scott to shut up is not really a good question. Chris hasn't actually asked anyone to shut up that I have seen, and he has (if you hunt for it) made a belated recognition that it was a mistake for Nisbet to make such a call.

I do wonder if Chris actually thinks that Eugenie Scott and the NCSE are making a mistake by giving such prominence to the explusion of PZ Myers; or whether this is another point where Chris might recognize that he, and Nisbet, have blundered.

Duae Quartunciae, I was about to admit my own mistake but the impression I had of a call for silence made me go back and check Chris's posts from last week. In fact if you read Chris's posts (you don't even have to go through the comments) you'll find that he clearly implies that we should avoid publicising the incident and that "our side" is "clueless".
Writing such posts at the same time as his framing partner was labeling his opponents policy as "Don Imus Atheism" is perhaps not the best policy.
If he's realized this was a mistake then good for him but this is a minor skirmish in a larger campaign regarding the idea that there should be some sort of official voice of science. By the way Chris, there shouldn't be, even if that voice is one of us clueless Don Imus atheists.

Many others before me have given good arguments against your premises. I am a classic 'layman' - an airbus driver - rote unquestioned training and execution is part of my job.

Even then I find the notion of having scientific information 'framed' or 'dumbed down', so that even I can understand it, condescending and insulting.

Good 'framing' would give me information as is - make it more accessible - rather than change form to suit my world view. Good framing would point out the right sources of information so that joe public like me can avail of the information instead of relying on pastors, priests and quacks. What is needed is good members of the scientific community to be available to disseminate information.

In that sense people like PZ Myers, ERV and Prof. Dawkins (to name a few) have done a lot of good 'framing'.

I'll try and come back to respond to your points 1-8 later - this is just a quick response in my lunchtime break.
A) If you think that on an open blog, you're going to get people to stick to your agenda, I have to question whether you are as much of an expert on communication as you think.
B) Yes, people use cognitive shortcuts. Even scientists. The extent to which we use shortcuts, and the extent to which they work well, are highly context-dependent.
C) I agree with those here saying the key issue is to encourage critical thinking, and that applies to scientists too - I often find natural scientists to be remarkably shallow in their thinking when it comes to political issues. One way to encourage critical thinking may be to find out where a particular audience already uses it, and work on helping them to extend it from there - and at the same time, getting them to help you to use it in their field of expertise.
D) I agree with Sigmund and Russell Blackford that this is a highly US-centric discussion. One of the cognitive shortcuts most Americans use - and this applies almost as much to scientists, liberals, atheists etc. as to your average Fox News watcher - is: "Only what happens in the USA really counts".

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 02 Apr 2008 #permalink

My problem with premise 6 is that any discussion of a controversial topic will have at least two sides. So, I'll frame the story as I see fit, highlighting the aspects that make my audience veer towards my side, but then my opponent will say "Hey! That's very nice, but you've forgotten the downside" (well, they could be nastier about that, for sure). Now, if I'm a politician, people will expect that. But if I'm a scientist? I've lost my credibility --- I'll be seen as pushing my agenda as opposed to informing the public.

So while I agree that you need to change your vocabulary and metaphors when addressing a general audience, I think selectively highlighting some aspects of your position (cherry-picking, I believe, is the name when applied to a crank) leaves you open to attacks and can be ultimately self-defeating.

I don't have any problem with this list. What I have had a problem with in the past is the way Nisbett, specifically, has tried to implement #6. I don't think he understands what "framing" means. I'm not totally convinced that anyone on Science blogs -- on either side of the argument -- has shown a real understanding of the concept, frankly. I'm not sure what exactly it is that Nisbett is talking about in many of his posts, but it generally has nothing to do with the framing concept that George Lakoff has written about. It seems like he's co-opted the word, but is using it for some nebulous concept that he invented himself.

Plus, there's a lot more to crafting effective communications than framing.

I like your books, Chris, and for what it's worth from a non-famous, non-scientist stranger, I would distance yourself from Nisbett. He really doesn't seem to know his ass from his elbow about communications, regardless of whatever degrees he may have.

I wrote a long critique above, but I think the key fallacy here is that the entire framing concept is based on "SCIENCE IS COMPLEX." This, in itself, is a frame and I think it's an anti-science frame. It is an excuse for allowing people not to think. It's a way to portray scientists as elitists who look down on others. It's a way to allow denialists to wave their hands and claim that their opinions are true if only you knew about the additional complexities of science. When you start a pro-science argument with "Science is complex" you lose.
This doesn't mean there isn't complexity, but the challenge is to find ways to communicate nuanced topics clearly, not to remove the nuance and present only selected portions of a topic to focus-grouped audiences.

There isn't a "general public", and that's part of the problem. Consider my mother-in-law. Now, MIL is not a stupid person, but she's a bit short on education. She also has a strong pragmatic streak that allows her to focus on learning only what she needs. People have commented that it's patronizing to suggest that people like her can't learn science, but she doesn't WANT to learn "science".

MIL wants to understand why building codes have changed to accommodate seismic hazards, which has added considerably to the cost of replacing her deck. She wants to understand how the decline in salmon along the U.S. Pacific coast will affect other species, especially the ones she and FIL like to fish for. She wants to understand HOW bacteria can become antibiotic-resistant, since the modern wonder-antibiotics are so much more expensive than good old Penicillin. But use the word "science" and you've completely lost her. She hears NOTHING past that point.

But we live in a democracy and SHE VOTES. I'm convinced that it's people like MIL that need to see carefully framed arguments that will explain the politically/socially/culturally important issues, so that she won't tune out the message before it's delivered.

Try the same framing with my husband the engineer, and he'll explode at the ridiculously dumbed-down explanations and completely distrust whoever cooked them up. And HE VOTES.

This is the fundamental problem, as I see it: Scientific concepts need to be explained to different people different ways, without tuning them out or appearing clueless. It's a real, serious problem, and I don't know how to solve it.

(Oh, and in case you all were wondering, discussions between MIL and Husband take on a very surreal tone sometimes. :-)