On framing.

I finally checked out the “framing” presentation by Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet which is available with PowerPoint slides here. I am not particularly interested in the debate over this issue, but I thought I would give it a try in light of my hope of improving media coverage and public comprehension of science. This is not my entry into the debate as I think it has garnered more attention that it warrants already; this is simply a set of thoughts on the issue after having spent the time watching the talk.

I will say that I found much to agree with as far as the descriptive components were concerned. That is, I think Mooney and Nisbet make some good arguments with regard to what is and is not working in scientific communication. This is Nisbet’s subject of research, and it was useful to see actual data applied to the question. My sense was that “framing” likely is something that nonspecialists do use when evaluating complex issues, and that this is a problem for scientists who want to convey complicated ideas with societal ramifications to them. However, I think the discussion runs aground in three major areas: 1) How it is presented to scientists, 2) In the failure to distinguish it from “spin” or “marketing”, and 3) When it shifts from description to prescription.

As to the first, Mooney and Nisbet seem to use an only partially appropriate “framing” when speaking to scientists who, both as individual people and as part of a collective, exhibit inherent preferences, biases, and other filters. To wit, scientists in general will be unwilling to compromise certain principles, and there appears to be insufficient appreciation of this fact by framing advocates. For example, scientists will not simplify to the point of eroding accuracy, they will not do anything that could be perceived as lying to the public, and they will never give up on the notion that getting the public to understand science is the primary long-term goal. From what I can gather, Mooney and Nisbet are not asking scientists to compromise on these principles, but this is not stated clearly — following their own advice, this should be presented clearly and repeatedly so as to reassure scientists that they are not being told to betray their scientific ideals. (And if they are asking scientists to do so, then this should be made clear also so that the debate can be put to a swift end).

The question of motives also comes into play as part of the mis-framing of framing. No one can be totally objective, so what scientists are trained to do is to look for biases and associated violations of objectivity so that these can be factored into the evaluation of scientific arguments. Personally, I found myself asking “why do they care what scientists do?”. One obvious explanation is that they are concerned citizens with a particular interest in science and its impacts on society. This is not stated upfront, however, and so questions come up about whether this isn’t an exercise in attention getting (and possibly book promoting) as much as a sincere call to action.

Finally, while I do not read their blogs, I have seen a few links to statements that I have found offensive to my scientific sensibilities. As a case in point, Mooney argues on his blog that science journalists are not the problem (this is also stated in the presentation). It would seem to follow, therefore, that if science is reported inaccurately, sensationalized, overstated in its implications, or otherwise distorted, that is the fault of scientists. Worse, Mooney goes so far as to argue that scientists should just shrug it off and move on if they are misquoted in the media. Again, this ignores the frame that scientists use, in which accuracy is of paramount significance. He also seems to think that simply telling scientists about the difference between a science journalist (well-trained and comprehensive) and a non-science journalist reporting on science (no expertise or experience in dealing with such issues) will make the resentment of the media’s handling of research disappear. It will not.

The second point is the one that has been the primary subject of discussion by some prominent scientist-bloggers, namely that “framing” bears a striking resemblance to “spin”. We all know that “spin” plays a substantial role in politics. To scientists, this is not something to be emulated. I won’t go so far as to say that framing is mere spin, but throughout the presentation I had the strong notion that it was largely indistinguishable from “marketing”. Scientists should care about how their work is presented to and received by the public, and therefore marketing is a legitimate consideration. Indeed, scientists market their work often — to granting agencies, students, journals, and colleagues. Adding some audience-specific adjustments when dealing with the public is perfectly reasonable, but if that’s all “framing” is, then it’s really just repackaged marketing truisms.

The third point, in which Mooney and Nisbet transition from describing the issue to prescribing what scientists should do, was by far the weakest part of the talk. In fact, I found almost nothing in their presentation that actually applied to me as an individual researcher. Almost everything they suggested actually fell under the purview of science writers, press offices, lobby groups, professional societies, or educational organizations. I still do not know what they expect me to do even with information in mind about how the public frames important topics. As a result, much of the talk seems to be about telling scientists what they are doing wrong with no real solutions that individual scientists can or will implement.

If I may, I would also add that Mooney and Nisbet’s discussion is, at heart, not about science or communication, but about American politics. In many other countries, scientific literacy is much higher, issues do occupy the primary stage in election campaigns, and religion and partisanship play a much smaller role in influencing decisions about science. Once again, this suggests that education about science early on is an effective strategy and a viable objective. The question of framing is more geographically and temporally localized than this, and so it is difficult for some scientists who are trained to look beyond such limitations to the larger picture to make framing a primary tool.

In stark contrast to all of this ambiguity and apparent misreading of scientific audiences, I point to the recent book A Scientist’s Guide to Talking with the Media by journalists Richard Hayes and Daniel Grossman, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists. I am only part way through the book, but already I can note that it does a fine job of framing the topic in a manner acceptable to scientists. Hayes and Grossman are very clear that they have the utmost respect for science and scientists, and that they absolutely do not wish to see spin implemented at the expense of accuracy. Theirs is a well articulated set of practical suggestions for dealing with the media. They do not appear to blame scientists but instead point to examples where different strategies could have forestalled problems. They do not let science reporters off the hook, but do try to promote a better understanding among scientists of the challenges of writing for a nonspecialist audience. They do not point out the challenge and leave the solutions unclear, but give point by point suggestions on how to improve the important relationship between scientists and those who report science. As a scientist with some experience with the media, I find a great deal of use in this volume. And I do not hesitate to recommend it as an alternative to the far less helpful argument about framing.



13 comments to On framing.

  • Jonathan Badger

    If I may, I would also add that Mooney and Nisbet’s discussion is, at heart, not about science or communication, but about American politics

    Of *course* it is about politics, and I don’t see why anyone is surprised by that. Mooney isn’t into science communication for the sake of science, he’s into science communication as support for his political causes, and to his credit, he’s never hidden this — it is pretty obvious where the author of a book entitled “The Republican War on Science” stands politically. What makes the whole debate so comic is that the very people who seem to be most hostile to the framing argument are they very people who seem to share political ideals with Mooney.

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  • TR Gregory

    That it is about politics is neither surprising nor what my point was. It is about contemporary American politics, and science goes well beyond this. Moreover, the point of that paragraph was to argue that, based on what we find in other nations, proper education can and does make a difference.

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  • Jonathan Badger

    That it is about politics is neither surprising nor what my point was. It is about contemporary American politics, and science goes well beyond this.

    Of course science is universal and bigger than the politics of one nation, but Mooney is an American author writing books criticizing the science policies of an American political party, and is trying to recruit scientists to speak out and help defeat this party through his strategy of “framing”. Why would anyone outside America think he was addressing them?

    Moreover, the point of that paragraph was to argue that, based on what we find in other nations, proper education can and does make a difference

    Does it? That seems like a good hypothesis, but where’s the evidence? Hopefully you weren’t thinking of Canada.

    Yes, I know that evolution hasn’t become a political issue in Canada, but the existence of comparable numbers of evolution-doubters to the States suggests that science education there is similarly wretched. (Not that I’m knocking Canada — I’m an American who lived in Canada myself for a time — postdoc in Waterloo, industry in Montreal)

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  • TR Gregory

    Jonathan, I don’t know what your problem is here. You pulled a partial quote out of context, and now you seem to be arguing that scientists in other countries should not be commenting on this topic. As for Canada, the recent evolution poll is troubling (though as I have pointed out, depends heavily on whether rural versus urban areas were sampled). Regardless, evolution was not the main example cited in their presentation, rather they spent most of the time on global warming and stem cells, and you’re welcome to look up polling data on those issues in Canada and elsewhere.

    Are you seriously arguing that teaching people early on about science won’t work? Because that’s what the point of the paragraph you commented on was about.

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  • TR Gregory

    Incidentally, you can read the results of the Angus Reid poll here:

    http://www.angus-reid.com/admin/collateral/pdfs/polls/ARS_Evo_Cre.pdf

    59% of Canadians (and a remarkable 71% of Quebeckers) accept evolution and only 22% agree with young earth creationism. 19% were not sure, and I suspect that these respondents would be open to discussions of the scientific data. There is also a clear correlation between level of education and acceptance of evolution. However, people appear to be confused about whether humans and dinosaurs coexisted — something that can and should be addressed with science.

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  • ERV

    Great post :)

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  • Jonathan Badger

    As far as I can see, I didn’t pull anything out of context, it’s just that nothing in the rest of the paragraph seemed to have any bearing on the one essential point that you seemed to have made (and one which you made incidentally clearer than most commentators on this subject) — namely that Mooney is a political writer making political points. Arguing that framing is good or bad for science communication is rather beside the point; the only valid argument is whether framing of scientific arguments will help the Democrats win or not in US elections.

    And I’m not arguing that you (or any non-American) can’t comment on Mooney — obviously, the future of American politics affects the rest of the world indirectly. But you have to understand (which I thought you did until your comment about “science goes well beyond this”) that Mooney is an American political writer, fighting an American battle.

    Are you seriously arguing that teaching people early on about science won’t work? Because that’s what the point of the paragraph you commented on was about.

    I’m saying that it needs to be demonstrated and not assumed. Education is one of many factors that influence policy on scientific issues. Just saying “Once again, this suggests that education about science early on is an effective strategy and a viable objective” is really not saying anything without data to back it up.

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  • TR Gregory

    Arguing that framing is good or bad for science communication is rather beside the point; the only valid argument is whether framing of scientific arguments will help the Democrats win or not in US elections.

    Then I was quite right to ignore this subject for so long, because it really is spin in a literal sense.

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  • TR Gregory

    And I’m not arguing that you (or any non-American) can’t comment on Mooney — obviously, the future of American politics affects the rest of the world indirectly. But you have to understand (which I thought you did until your comment about “science goes well beyond this”) that Mooney is an American political writer, fighting an American battle.

    And many scientists consider themselves part of something larger than any one national debate, namely a global scientific community. To expect scientists to behave in a purely localized way, even if they happen to agree with the political agenda being pursued, is naive indeed.

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  • TR Gregory

    This sentence:

    “Education is one of many factors that influence policy on scientific issues.”

    contradicts the one preceding it:

    “I’m saying that it needs to be demonstrated and not assumed.”

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  • Jonathan Badger

    This sentence:

    “Education is one of many factors that influence policy on scientific issues.”

    contradicts the one preceding it:

    “I’m saying that it needs to be demonstrated and not assumed.”

    Cute. I’m saying that it needs to be demonstrated that education is the deciding factor. It would be absurd to assume that education has no effect at all (and I don’t), but at the same time there are so many other possible factors influencing science policy: religion, culture, degree of corporate influence.

    It’s easy for Canadians to assume that the problem with the US is that it’s filled with poorly educated yokels and Canada isn’t, but things like the Agnus-Reid poll suggest that, if the level of (mis)understanding of evolution is similar in the two countries, something other than education must explain why Harper’s cronies aren’t denying evolution like many Republicans are in the US.

    And many scientists consider themselves part of something larger than any one national debate, namely a global scientific community. To expect scientists to behave in a purely localized way, even if they happen to agree with the political agenda being pursued, is naive indeed.

    Well, “Think globally, act locally” as the saying goes… and I don’t think keeping anti-evolution theocrats in power locally helps the global scientific community.

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  • TR Gregory

    It’s easy for Canadians to assume that the problem with the US is that it’s filled with poorly educated yokels and Canada isn’t

    Woah. First of all, I never mentioned Canada (you did). I said “in many countries” and specifically had Europe and some Asian countries in mind.

    I’m saying that it needs to be demonstrated that education is the deciding factor.

    I never implied that it was the deciding factor. I said “this suggests that education about science early on is an effective strategy and a viable objective.” And I said that in response to claims by Mooney and Nisbet that this doesn’t work. It may not work in the current political and educational environment of the US, but my point was that this is not the only test case.

    Well, “Think globally, act locally” as the saying goes… and I don’t think keeping anti-evolution theocrats in power locally helps the global scientific community.

    What I actually meant was that scientists have additional loyalties, namely to globally established scientific principles, that may preclude them from being willing to spin in the name of a geographically localized political effort. I’m not implying that they won’t vote or take political action, I’m saying that they may not wish to spin their science to this end if it compromises the principles that they, as scientists, believe in. That is certainly how I feel, but as you note, their message is not directed at people in the rest of the world.

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  • Blake Stacey

    Manual trackback — I quite enjoyed this post.

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