Interlude: Framing

The “framingkerfluffle continues apace at and elsewhere (also here). For a primer on this subject, see my earlier remarks here. I like Joshua’s most recent take, which can be summarized in the phrase, “Let’s look at the data.” I also like what “Revere” has to say at Effect Measure:

Nisbet and Mooney argue that just presenting the facts in favor of evolution or climate change isn’t sufficient. As a university teacher for 40 years I couldn’t agree more. It’s a matter of good pedagogy, which isn’t just displaying facts. If it were, we wouldn’t need teachers. But the implication that good teaching is “packaging” — aka, “spinning,” although they prefer to think of it as “framing” — doesn’t follow, unless all good teaching is called “framing,” in which case all we have done is substitute one word for another.

“All good teaching is framing” has no more content than “All is God”, “All thoughts are memes” or “Everything is love.” You don’t get to say “All is full of love” unless you’re a Björk-22 model gynoid from the Yamtaijika Corporation. I’d add that if you really want to use a jargon word, you should pick one which doesn’t have an everyday meaning: picking a word which everybody thinks they understand even though they actually need a background in the subject is setting yourself up for confusion. Call it “Lakoff framing” or “Goffman framing” or something of the sort.

You know what this whole thing reminds me of?


Once upon a hard day’s night, there was a little band from Liverpool whose manager, Brian Epstein, convinced them to wear suits. And because they didn’t look like ruffians pulled out of the River Mersey, they got a gig on the Ed Sullivan show, at which point time stood still and — so the sages tell us — even the criminals took a tea break. The lesson, it would appear, is plain: comb your hair and you’ll sell more records.

See? Framing in action!

. . . but then John Lennon had to go open his smart mouth and say,

Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. . . . I don’t know what will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. We’re more popular than Jesus now. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.

When the good folk of America’s Heartland heard this kind of talk, Beatle albums went up in flames. Some still say that rock and roll is the Devil’s music (but at least the Devil can jam).

See? Framing didn’t last.

Now, there’s always the chance that I missed something — this kerfluffle has spread over umpty-ump wobsites, faster than Google can track even if you could choose the right keywords — but in the threads I managed to read, it wasn’t until 10:42 AM on 15 April that somebody actually put up an example text for “framing” — and the person who did it wasn’t even a blogger, just someone typing in the Pharyngula comment box!

Let’s contemplate that situation in a little more depth. First, the discussion is too big to track. Just listen to Chris Mooney himself!

Once again, I can’t keep up with all the latest reactions to Nisbet-Mooney. There are just too many of them (over 160 comments at PZ’s blog alone; and even my own blog is pushing 40 right now).

I’m probably as good as or better than anybody I know at Google trickery. Thanks to spending far too much time posting comments on people’s blags, I’m pretty darn adept with site-specific searches and other tools for finding something I or a fellow commenter said. I know the spam-filter rules for all my favorite sites, including the really weird ones (using the word soma makes think that you’re a spammer!). I include references in my comments, choosing them with care so that I can keep my remarks under the spam-filter URL limits. That’s the sort of dedication which wins you the Order of the Molly.

So, when a total nerd like me can’t navigate a “discussion”, you know the situation is seriously blogus.

Furthermore, the whole mess is worsened by the lack of definite discussion points. Not only does this mean that the relevant parts of the conversation are scattered across a dozen threads, but it also means we’re doomed to spend our valuable Network time blasting hot air about technical definitions, citation counts in the anthropological literature, and foundationless claims about national identity instead of seeing how “framing” actually works.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We wouldn’t need new software to have a better disputation forum, although if we try to do this sort of thing more than once, some new tools might be nice for convenience’s sake.

The blagnet lacks mechanisms for bringing bloggers together in debate and deliberation. Blog “carnivals” are retrospective affairs; the people who assemble them are more like secretaries recording the minutes than presidents leading a meeting. Our language is revealing: we speak of “blog wars”, but we don’t often cast inter-blog disputes in the same light as, for example, Supreme Court cases. (I am normally suspicious of arguments from etymology, but I think that here one can make the case that the language reflects our habits of thought, though not perhaps shaping those habits.)

We need a court system, but all we’ve got is trial by fire. While Time magazine tells us that we have built the digital reincarnation of the Athenian Agora, it’s really more like a Viking feast house, with Beowulf’s soldiers wearing mead-stained blankets and pretending to be philosopher-kings.

This is progress?

I could rant at slightly greater length, but instead, I’ll just direct you to David Brin’s essay on “Today’s Centrifugal Net.”

Or, if you’re tired of reading, you can just watch the Ghost in the Shell version of the “All is Full of Love” video.

UPDATE (17 April): Cross-reference this rant with Carl Zimmer’s essay “When Scientists Go All Bloggy“. Speaking of a freewheeling debate over a bacteriology paper, he says,

This can potentially be a good thing. It may drive the scientific process forward more efficiently, and it may let non-scientists better understand a crucial part of science. But as it stands, this open debate has some big problems. For one thing, it’s incredibly diffuse—a post here, a comment there. It’s not even really a debate. The authors of the paper itself have not, to my knowledge, responded anywhere to all this. (Admittedly, this has all unfolded in about 24 hours, so perhaps I need to lay off the coffee and wait a while.) Obviously, the blogosphere gets a lot of its strength from its decentralized structure, but it seems to me that productive debate is a lot like life. If you pack a lot of enzymes and DNA and other molecules in a tight package, you get life. Disperse them, and you get a few random reactions. Pack comments about a particular paper in one place, and a real debate can emerge. Disperse them across the blogosphere, and you encourage cheap shots and irrelevant tangents, while good observations go unappreciated.

Before I could so much as blink, Greg Wilson commented on Carl Zimmer’s piece, offering a link to Jon Udell’s “Internet Groupware for Scientific Collaboration” (2000).

The Web was invented so that scientists could use computer networks to collaborate — that is, exchange documents, discuss them, coordinate work, create and publish collective knowledge. It was, in other words, supposed to be a groupware application.

Despite the popularity of the Web — or, perhaps, because of that popularity — it has yet to fulfill that original mission. Today’s Web is more like a shotgun marriage of electronic publishing and broadcast television than it is like an engineered solution for group collaboration. True, the Internet empowers today’s working scientist in ways only dreamed of even a decade ago. Yet our use of it often remains rooted in pre-Web idioms and habits — partly because we don’t fully exploit today’s Internet communication tools, but mainly because we’re still missing key tools and infrastructure.

3 thoughts on “Interlude: Framing”

  1. LOL This whole thing has turned into a complete train-wreck! Pretty sure Im gonna hurl if I hear the f-word again any time soon.

    But I am with Orac on this– its a tempest in a teapot. Lets have a garage sale! All teapots and frames must go!!!!

  2. Blake, I’m not at all sure that the disjunct and chaotic way the framing science discussion has unfolded is a bad thing. It’s frustrating to be sure trying to scan all the blogs and threads looking for nonrepetitious and meaningful comments, but I’m not convinced there is a better way for a hot-button issue to be discussed.

    I’m mostly thinking about time. Taking time to reflect is usually lacking in these hot discussions. Most professional people don’t have time to post much thoughtful stuff on their blogs let alone engage in long comment threads. And their is no compelling need to compress the discussion time (or place). We talk a lot about things happening “Internet time” but that’s not a good thing when it comes to rational discussion.

    [You’ve probably heard this before but the white on black text makes for painful reading.]

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