I Was Framed!

Not too long ago, the way the outside world tells time, Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney published a paper in Science on the topic of “Framing.” Well, ’tweren’t really a paper — truth be told, it was more like an Op-Ed with footnotes. This being the Internet, humorous and ironic points have all been pointed out before you can get to them: as several people have said before, this essay on how to improve science communication was locked behind a subscription wall like a callipygian slave girl in the harem of academic orthodoxy.

What, you think I just went a simile too far? You try reading an explosion of interacting, conflicting blogs with scores of articulate and angry commenters, and just you see if you can stop your twenty-two remaining neurons from spewing up a metaphysical conceit of saturnine if not Jovian proportions.

There’s a technical definition of “framing” in the anthropological literature (or rather, a “turf battle” of several vaguely related and conflicting definitions, which doesn’t help), but the general sense in which most people seem to have interpreted the notion is that scientific ideas — global warming, evolution, Pluto not being a planet no more, etc. — should be wrapped in carefully chosen rhetoric like viruses coated in lipid membranes stolen from their hosts in order to evade the immune system, which is in this case the public’s reluctance to listen to scientific issues. It’s been said that this is really no different than what we science folk do every day when writing our grant proposals, speaking at conferences, glossing over the subtleties in freshman biology class and so forth.

Unfortunately, what could and should have been a useful discussion about communicating science when our society needs it most turned out, well, broken. To illustrate, I can hardly do better than quote PZ Myers:

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

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

Maybe I do need a course in this.

I would like to argue that the confusion and general cross-purposes painfully evident in the Blagnet discussion indicates two things: first, that the initial Nisbet–Mooney paper was a thrust in the wrong direction, and second, that we are confronting a fundamental limitation of the way the Web currently operates.

My impression is that most of this discussion is still going on without real reference to any definition of “framing” established in the anthropological literature. This is one reason why I think the discussion shouldn’t be conducted in terms of “frames”: referencing a specialized term, over which there is debate in the specialist literature, and which everybody thinks they instantly understand because it’s such a simple word, is just a guarantee of trouble. (The other day, I wrote a little about the dangers of equivocation, ’cause you know sometimes words have two, three or N meanings.)

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

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

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

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

Less practical and more open-ended is the proposal by Hank Roberts, myself and various others to look at and fix the feedback mechanisms at work in the popular media. (I could justify this with complex-systems jargon at least as obscure and references at least as eclectic as any “framing” talk.)

Regular Language Log readers will know that Mark Liberman, a linguist and a clear communicator himself, has tracked a great deal of bad science reporting and arrived at some melancholy conclusions. Look at what happens even when the science is not mathematically abstruse like string theory or politically weighted like evolution and global climate:

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

The public reaction has mostly been that this is like doing experiments to discover that the sun rises in the east, or to confirm that animals deprived of food will starve. In fact, however, the “facts” about word counts and sexual thoughts are false: Louann Brizendine hasn’t done any research on either topic, the sources she cites contain no relevant evidence, and existing studies contradict her claims. You can read about talking here and sexual thoughts here, and more on the pseudo-science of sex differences here.

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

Other examples of the same thing proliferate. Look up what Greg Egan and John Baez had to say about New Scientist and the “EmDrive”, or Clifford Johnson‘s take on the string-theory kerfluffle, or Russell Blackford‘s description of media inaccuracies regarding Wikipedia. . . . The list could easily continue. There’s no incentive for most media organizations to report any scientific or technical issue in any depth. Even when they’re caught, they don’t have to change their ways.

Zero accountability.

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

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

Furthermore, this is why I don’t think one can meaningfully compare what happens in freshman bio or on grant proposals with the slick-but-not-so-accurate PR which scientist bloggers worry would be the end result of “framing”. In some ethereal way, they’re connected, but so far as right and wrong depend upon consequences, they’re not the same. In a sentence, the feedback mechanisms which keep the hype and spin from getting out of hand are completely different in the two situations, so whatever moral equivalence we might like to draw between the two, we shouldn’t use the comparison as a basis for choosing policy.

Within science there are error-correcting mechanisms through which the spin, hype and other sins can be criticized. For example, if you dumb down your freshman lectures too much, your students will be left with a poor understanding, and you’ll get in trouble with your fellow faculty. Act too stupid at a conference and we’ll sic Jorge Cham on you. Other mechanisms work in other arenas; we need such devices, honestly, because humans are awfully good at sinning and can do it with style. CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error.

Our protective devices have at least a thousand failure modes, naturally, but at least they exist — within science itself! What comparable checks and balances exist in television, magazines, pulpits and the other avenues through which science is disseminated? We have data to answer this question. The “moderate” and “liberal” churches have had oodles of opportunity to denounce the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis for their appalling ethics, even if they want to leave the scientific “debate” to the scientists. One might even say that watchdogging the morality of public figures is their job. What have they done?


It’s interesting to note just how much data we have on the “feedback mechanism” problem, once we know to look for it! What’s more, by studying the feedback mechanisms and avenues of criticism built into various social systems, we automatically tie ourselves to the real world, and we keep the possibility of proposing actions constantly in mind. By contrast, in all this “framing” brouhaha, I’ve yet to see a blogger put up a press release and invite their readers to perform the gedanken exercise of workshopping that release to “frame” it properly! (Somehow, I doubt Smolin and Woit will come along to save us from this divorce from experiment and testable hypotheses. . . .)

Sean Carroll has some valuable things to say about seeking general principles:

My view on these issues is incredibly complex and well-thought-out, but sadly the margin of this blog post is too narrow to contain it. Instead I’ll just highlight something that is probably obvious: a big reason for the disagreements is the attempt to find a set of blanket principles governing a widely diverse and highly idiosyncratic set of circumstances. Talking to the public involves a tremendous array of competing pressures, and how best to balance them will certainly depend on the specifics of the situation. Are scientists bad communicators, when they are talking to the public? Very often, yes. Is it important to be better? Absolutely, both for altruistic and self-interested reasons. Should they compromise telling the truth in order to win people over? No. Does making an effort to engage people on their own level necessarily mean that the truth must be compromised? No. Should they expect the same kind of arguments to work with the public as work with their colleagues? No. Are the standards of acceptable levels of precision and detail different when talking to specialists and non-specialists? Of course. Is connecting to people’s pre-conceived notions, and using them to your advantage as a communicator, somehow unsavory? No. Should we pander to beliefs that we think are false? Certainly not. Etc., etc.; every situation is going to be different.

Occasionally, scientists resemble the fellow who looks for his keys under the lamp because that’s where the only light is, even though he’s pretty sure he lost them somewhere else. This discussion has, so far, brought to mind a man stumbling through the dark corners of the room, hitting furniture along the way and squeezing his eyes shut when he nears the light.

And the signs from the institutions upon which we rely are not good:

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

I’m just saying.

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

TOMORROW: What Nisbet and Mooney’s “fifteen minutes” say about the way the Web fails.

UPDATE (29 June 2007): Since this topic just hasn’t gone away, here are links to later Science After Sunclipse posts on “framing.”

7 thoughts on “I Was Framed!”

  1. Yeah … the whole framing back&forth has been incredibly difficult to follow. Yours and Cosmic Variance’s posts on the topic have been the only ones I’ve seen that start with an actual description of the conversation and go from there. Everything after the practical suggestions you listed (i.e., the quoted bits) seems to be mostly well thought-out highly opinionated hot air. Yes, there’s a problem, but, no, the web is not necessarily the place to solve it, as you say.

  2. I’ve also made the fairly specific suggestion, which resonates with yours (can’t remember where I made it exactly) that more resources be spent on training for the science press. For example MIT had a fellowship program that sent science journalist to take graduate courses … a couple at a time, I think, in the fields they tended to cover. This has had a strong positive effect. One problem is that this sometimes over qualifies the journalists and they move on to bigger and better things.

  3. Thanks for all the feedback and continued thoughts. Though we were only allowed 900 words (including citations) for our Science piece, it’s great that it has focused so much attention on the complex issue of how to effectively engage the public on controversial areas of science-related policy.

    A few quick notes:

    a) As Mooney and I described in a 2005 cover story for the Columbia Journalism Review (where instead of scientists, we engage journalists on these problems) science writers often do a terrific job in conveying the technical details of science. It’s when debates over evolution (or climate change or stem cell research etc) move to the political beat and the opinion pages that the science becomes reinterpreted as “he said-she said, I’m clueless.” Check out the article, it addresses a lot of the discussion in this post:


    b) In chronicling the problems in reaching the wider public on climate change, I offer a few novel suggestions in a recent column for Skeptical Inquirer Online. These include using entertainment and celebrity culture, but also harnessing the power of opinion-leaders, i.e. average citizens who can pass on to their peers information about climate change (or another scientific debate) that will be trusted, persuasive, and packaged in a way that resonates with the targeted public’s social identity. Go to this link:


    A response to a suggestion made above: Even if coverage by science writers were prefect in the eyes of their sometimes scientist critics, it would still only reach a very small audience of science enthusiasts. Left out would be the majority audience of Americans who pay little or no attention to coverage of science.

    As we suggest in the CJR piece, and as I implemented as part of the curriculum when I was on the faculty at Ohio State, (and as I am trying to do here at American University,) general assignment and political reporters are where the training focus needs to be. For example, at Ohio State, for two years I designed and taught a course called “Scientific Reasoning for Journalists” that *all* journalism majors were required to take. Here’s a description:

    An introduction for public affairs journalism students to the major methods of scientific and evidence-based reasoning. The course covers scientific measurement, the nature of causality, experimental methods, survey methods, sources of scientific uncertainty, and the political nature of how scientific knowledge is produced and/or used in policy decisions. A central goal of the course would be to prepare students to think critically about the many scientific and statistical claims that are made in everyday political discourse, to evaluate the credibility of sources, and to make judgments relative to expertise. Case study exercises are assigned that apply the principles of the course to contemporary public affairs debates. These case studies involve research and analysis, but also the production of communication messages or media specific to the topic. Examples of possible case studies include intelligent design; climate change; drug trials and the placebo effect; causes and deterrents of crime; the use of opinion surveys and exit polls in news coverage and campaign strategy; and debates over risk in the context of issues such as e. coli, food biotechnology, Vioxx, or nanotechnology.

    c) As a social scientist, my research specialty is the media and it’s influence on policy decisions and public perceptions. In top “basic research” journals I have published numerous peer-reviewed studies over the past few years on these topics. You can find a list of all of my publications, peer-reviewed and otherwise, at the link below:


    I appreciate Greg Laden’s intense interest in Goffman’s work from 1974, but he dismisses literally more than a hundred studies published across three major academic disciplines, specifically communication, sociology, and political science.

    While moving forward with my peer-reviewed work in my academic specialty, I also think there is a lot of value in engaging scientists, policymakers, advocates, and journalists on what research in this area points to as effective public engagement strategies.

    In teaming up with Chris Mooney, an award winning journalist covering the intersection of science and politics, I think together we can offer some unique and valuable insight. It’s a great pairing of a credentialed social scientist and a veteran journalist. We also welcome the debate that our work might generate, since it provides further valuable feedback and “anecdotal data” to work with.

    The Science piece, where we engage an audience of scientists, and the CJR cover story where we engage an audience of journalists, are two examples of this outreach. So is my blog Framing Science, the semi-regular columns I write for Skeptical Inquirer Online, and the more than a dozen lectures I have given in the U.S. and Canada over the past year. I also have had the opportunity to consult with several major science-related organizations including the National Academies and the National Science Foundation.

    On discussing public engagement strategies, expect much more to come from us. We look forward to your feedback and discussion.


  4. Matt… just so you know, this “here here here here” post (above) was automatically generated by some kind of daemon on the internet … I think it is a sophisticated form of traceback or something….

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