Saturday, April 07, 2007

Coturnix on Framing Science

 
I don't have the time or the energy to read everything that's been written about the upcoming Mooney & Nisbet Science article. If you want to catch up then check out the Coturnix posting [Framing Science - the Dialogue of the Deaf] for all the latest links.

However, I would like to respond to some of the things that Coturnix writes. He's a defender of framing and he believes that science writers have to improve.

Here's what he says about frames.
Very short summary: words have effects beyond their dictionary definitions. Language evokes emotional responses: 'frames' (as in 'frames of mind'). There is no such thing as emotion-free language. If you can understand a piece of text (and that includes math, not just English), you will respond emotionally. The kind of response to language results in one accepting or rejecting the message (and the messenger). The kind of response to language is dependent on one's worldview - the same sentence will elicit different responses (and thus acceptance or rejection) in different people.
No argument there. People have different worldviews. but what does that mean for science writers?
Good news: most people are biconceptual, i.e., they possess both frames in their minds. By evoking the right frame by careful use of language, you gain trust and authority with the audience and as a result they believe that what you are saying is true. In other words, just saying the truth is not enough, as it is processed through ideological glasses. By invoking the correct frame, you allow the truth to penetrate and get accepted. By dismissing framing as method and by being careless in the use of language, you are bound to "buy into" the currently dominant Rightwing frames and will thus reinforce them while at the same time preventing your audience from accepting the truth. Since conservatism, religion and pseudoscience do not have the truth on their side, their frames are deceptive and Orwellian. Since our frames are backed up by truth, in a head-to-head competition we should win, but we cannot let the opposition frame the issues in the first place.
First things first.

Coturnix, you live in North Carolina. I live in Ontario. Please don't try and enforce your "frame" on me. I don't live in a society where right wing frames dominate the discourse so your lecture about catering to them is falling on deaf ears. Mooney and Nisbet make the same mistake. They assume that every science writer is only interested in writing for people in Texas or New Jersey. The irony here is that they are "framing" science based on a society that many of us don't recognize. (Think Richard Dawkins in England.)

Second, even if you live in a society where truth is not valued does that mean you have to abandon it in order to get your point across? I hope that's not what you're saying but it sure sounds like it.

Third, you argue that "we cannot let the opposition frame the issues" but that's exactly what you're doing. The entire justification for "framing," as far as I can see, is to modify your language and style to conform to the rules set by our opponents. The real words for that are cop-out and surrender. I guess "framing" is just a more politically correct term.

Coturnix goes on to explain two different meanings of framing.
The first meaning of 'framing' is the use of language to evoke pre-existing frames in a very small, limited audience for a quick and effective "conversion" for a cause that has immediate political consequences, i.e., the next bill in congress, or the next election, etc. You do not educate them in details of science - they are not interested, do not have enough background and it does not matter if they do or don't understand the fine points. The goal is to bring them over to your side and recruit them to do whatever is politically necessary to win a particular battle over the side of pseudoscience/religion/conservatism. This is what Matt and Chris are discussing.
If this is what Chris and Matt are discussing then it's not science education and it's not science writing in the sense that I understand it. It's polemical writing that just happens to be about science.

As I explained at the January meeting in North Carolina, the top three requirements for good science writing are scientific accuracy, scientific accuracy, and scientific accuracy. As soon as you sacrifice the attempt to convey good accurate science to the general public then you're not doing science writing. You're doing something else.

If you, Chris, and Matt truly believe that you don't need to educate the public about good science in order to win a political fight about science then we don't just have different worldviews, ... we're on different planets.
The second meaning of 'framing' is the use of language to introduce new frames into the public discourse and, as a result, change the entire intellectual landscape. This is necessarily a long-term project - as in: a couple of decades at best. By placing new frames into people's minds - more science-friendly or reality-friendly frames - it makes it easier in the future to recruit greater numbers of people to the cause-du-jour. A frame that is new now, and perhaps rejected by many as silly, will in ten or twenty years be a normal part of everyone's (especially the next generation's) emotional armamentarium. You put them in there now, and evoke them later when you need them. This is what PZ and Moran are talking about.
That's only part of what I'm talking about. What I'm really saying is that I value truth and honesty. If I believe in something I'm going to tell people about it. If that turns out to be a minority opinion then that's the way the cookie crumbles. I don't lie awake at night thinking about how the people of North Carolina might interpret my words. My worldview doesn't get "framed" by others. Does yours? Do you worry about how the average Canadian will look at your articles and then make appropriate adjustments to avoid offending them?
First rule: Know your audience.

Adjust your language to the audience. One language for fellow scientists, another for educated lay-people who are inclined to agree with you, another for people who are disinclined to agree with you, etc.
I write for intelligent lay-people, period. I don't change my style from day-to-day depending on whether I think most people will agree or disagree. Quite frankly, I usually assume that most will disagree. That's what curmudgeons do!
Second rule: Truth will not let you free.

Truth is not sufficient. Dry data will not sway non-scientists. Their eyes will glaze over and they'll move on. Reserve your precision for your papers, posters and talks. You can talk like that to your fellow scientists. But as soon as you leave that narrow circle you will have to adjust your language.
Truth may not be everything but it's so far ahead of whatever's in second place that it might as well be everything. Once you abandon truth you've lost.

Now I'm sure you really didn't meant to equate "truth" with "dry data" but for a posting that supposed to be about the precision of words, that's a serious slip. What you should have said is that science writers should always tell the truth about science but they don't necessarily need to explain every detail. This has nothing to do with framing. It's just part of the common sense of science writing.

In his article, Coturnix now launches into an extended discussion of how to lie to the public without calling it a lie. He claims that doing this is not dishonest. He claims that it's okay to abandon the essential principles of science; scientific accuracy, honesty, and integrity, in order to convince the public in some scientific debate.
It totally does not matter if the targets of your framing have no comprehension of evolution as long as they believe you when you tell them it is true and then act accordingly in the voting booth. This is not a sell-out to our high-minded principles: we will still adhere to our high standards of accuracy in the classroom and in our research reports. But not in our "Natural History Magazine" articles, or on our blogs, where that is inappropriate (at least in some types of blog-posts, like this one, for instance). That is why I, contra PZ and Larry, think that this movie is an excellent tool. It gets evolution wrong, but that is not the point. It visually frames evolution in a way that an uneducated, uninterested, ADHD-riddled layperson can "grok" it in about two minutes. The movie prepares the person for your carefully crafted spiel. And if the person ends up believing that evolution is a fact, it makes no difference if his/her conception of evolution is not 100% correct (hey, Dawkins and Dawkins get it wrong, so why not some Joe Schmoe?). If one out of a thousand viewers of the movie shows more interest, there are plenty of resources you can use to teach that person finer points and make his/her understanding better.
Coturnix, I will not follow you down that path. I do not adhere to a "high standard of accuracy" in the classroom and something else in my textbooks and my blog. If that's what you truly believe we should do, then you are on the verge of losing my respect. If that's what Mooney and Nisbet are saying then they are absolutely, totally wrong about science writing.

27 comments:

  1. As an example of your interested lay-person audience, I'm a lot closer to Moran than Coturnix on this.

    As an audience member, I have the uncomfortable feeling that the Coturnix approach could leave me feeling either or both of patronized or manipulated. I don't think that the Moran approach quite recognizes the ability of a good science writer (scientist or not) to find different phrasings or approaches which might be more effective for a lay audience while avoiding the dreaded "dumbing down", but perhaps I'm misinterpreting him.

    In any event, I agree about the "don't tamper with the facts" focus of Moran. As a reader, that's the fastest way to lose me, now and forever. I'll puzzle over something that's a bit over my head, but if I think I'm being hosed, I'm gone.

    To focus on the "good writing" element rather than the "scientist" element for a moment, I'd mention Carl Zimmer. From what I can judge, he has about as good a balance of "good writing" and "good science" as I've seen recently. I've seen him criticized on specific points of emphasis, but I'm not aware of him being criticized for the sort of inaccuracy that Coturnix seems to be willing to wink at.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That's why you are a college professor and not a science journalist, a lobbyist, a campaign advisor - and you are damned good at what you do, so don't switch professions because if you did the results would be disastrous.

    This is - most emphatically - not about science education at all (except in the very long term, perhaps) - it is about winning political victories. It is strategy, not edification.

    I was limiting myself to the USA because Matt and Chris' article did and because the topic was really about the necessity to sway opinion in the USA. I did mention in the text, though, that same principlies (with different details) apply to other countries.

    And, if you read carefully, I do not advocate lying - au contraire, I say that framing will allow the truth to go through.

    And that does not play into rightwing frames - I don't see how you can think this as the entire article is about not falling for the right wing frames, but using our own instead. Framing as a method is not a right-wing thing. But we let them have it and thus allowed for decades of the Overton Window shifting to the right which allowed us to elect a moron like Bush.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "This is - most emphatically - not about science education at all (except in the very long term, perhaps) - it is about winning political victories."


    The problem with that view, of course, is that science is most emphatically not about "winning political victories" -- not even close (not even in the same universe).

    Science itself is value neutral (even if scientists themselves are not).

    ReplyDelete
  4. "They assume that every science writer is only interested in writing for people in Texas or New Jersey."

    I noticed that, and now when you have pointed out the irony it is rather striking how at least Nesbit seems to mess up his framing. First in not catering to his international readers, then in not suggesting a frame that most scientists have. In coturnix words, they are starting a long-term project here.

    Perhaps I will read coturnix long article later, but it seems to make the same mistake.

    I don't think that framing is unimportant as a communication tool. Of course scientists should be active in the current debates, and suggest new frames when it is useful. But as Moran I don't think they must necessarily go outside the "science" or "blog-reading non-expert" frames often.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Science is neutral, but the way it gets used is not. It's one thing to have command of a subject area and be able to teach it to interested students. It's quite another to be able to influence policy makers and their constituents. I understand not every scientist is interested in the latter, but I do wish that more were.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "Third, you argue that "we cannot let the opposition frame the issues" but that's exactly what you're doing. The entire justification for "framing," as far as I can see, is to modify your language and style to conform to the rules set by our opponents. The real words for that are cop-out and surrender. I guess "framing" is just a more politically correct term."

    This insight is so spot on! By abandoning accurate, scientific language in favour populist "frames", the enemy has already won the fight. It's like telling a symphony orchestra to sound like 50 Cent so that the kids won't tune out when they start playing. By biasing science writing towards frames and away from accuracy, you make it easier for the pseudoscientists to mimic the language of science.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Why do liberals misunderstand framing and think it is dishonest? That is why we loose elections and we loose in the popular opinion. 95% of the people (in every country) don't think like trained scientists and are not receptive to a typical scientist's way ot talking. We HAVE to snap out of it. Soon. If we want to save the Enlightement and what is left of it.

    ReplyDelete
  8. "We" can't save the Enlightenment all by our lonesome. The day science doesn't pay off in the eye of society, it is probably pretty much gone.

    But it would help politics if all politicians were proficient in framing.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Somebody tell me what the difference between "framing" and simply using effective rhetoric might be. At this point, I despair, because the only message I'm getting is that scientists are incompetent and must cater to a tv news mentality to persuade people, because they're all so damned stupid.

    I'm the problem, then, because I'd rather we said there was a standard of rigor and accuracy and depth somewhat higher than that of a Republican presidential press secretary, and we were going to stand up for it.

    ReplyDelete
  10. It all depends on your audience. You have to tailor your message to communicate with them. As great as Larry and PZ are on science blogs with a relatively sophisticated audience, I doubt they'd do well as hosts on programs like "bill nye the science guy".

    ReplyDelete
  11. Bill Nye is fine. I liked his show.

    Still, I'm not happy about all these people turning around and asking me why I can't be more like Bill Nye. Heck, maybe we should keep going in that direction and all be like Pee Wee Herman?

    (I liked his show, too.)

    ReplyDelete
  12. As great as Larry and PZ are on science blogs with a relatively sophisticated audience, I doubt they'd do well as hosts on programs like "bill nye the science guy".

    I don't want to be like Bill Nye. That's his niche, not mine. Furthermore, I can't be like Bill Nye because he over-simplifies science and sometimes gets it wrong. In order for me to make the kinds of pronouncements about science that Bill Nye makes I'd have to lie and I can't do that. It's the curse of scientists.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Actually, I'd much prefer you'd not be like Bill Nye (I have nothing against him either). I'm just saying that different audiences require different approaches. You may be better suited for some than others, and that's what you should probably stick with. But if a Bill Nye-type for evolution could ever be found, it would certainly be helpful. The dynamics of the whole evolution/creation war might not leave much of a niche for his survival, though.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I think it's a bit insulting to keep claiming that lay people cannot figure out what PZ and Larry are writing about on their blogs. I don't have the background in science to always understand everything, but I do learn from their articles.

    What you really mean to say is that the lay person is too lazy to understand science writing. I honestly do not think that the majority of people are too stupid.

    And I don't see how politically correct semantics is going to matter. I appreciate the straight approach myself and to change rhetoric is only going to cost the readers they currently have.

    Find a politician if that's what you're looking for, but let the scientists be scientists. Otherwise I think they're real focus on science is at risk.

    Maybe it's for lay people that do read and have some grasp to "explain" to people within their own peer groups.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I wrote a similar post on PZ's blog and I will try to simplify things here. First my experience includes technical writing. I have degrees in Geophysics from the University of Hawaii and have some scientific writing experience also. So, I can state my thesis simply - scientists don't communicate well. By training scientists communicate complex information to subject matter experts using a very specialized language that is shared between those experts. What I would call "the club". They use a format that meets the requirements for scientific journals that is proper for their discipline but has no meaning outside the club of experts.

    The problem is how to inform "Joe" who has no bacground in math, chemistry, physics, biology, or science at all, about these complex issues.

    What I think you are calling framing really means is Targeting the Audience. Framing kinda sounds like spin. Nobody wants that. But targeting the audience is important.

    The idea of dumbing down is irrevelant. I hate that term because it makes the audience sound dumb and they are not, just not trained. The point is to interest them and engage them on their level and try not to indoctrinate them. Forget trying to get Joe to get the science he doesnt have the tools, or interest. No math, no chemistry, no physics, no biology, nothin.

    The ID cruds have this down. They make a general statement that may be inacurate, incomplete, or completely false. They have no risk. Joe will not research them and; even if they supply the citation Joe would not be able to understand the disconnect. The scientist responds with a well researched, cited, scientific jargon response usually on his blog. Joe doesn't understand it signs off after the first paragraph (if he goes to your blog at all). The ID fellow just passes it off as a disagreement amongst fellow scientists (feel that pain!). Joe belives him! To add to the problem you give the creationist publicity on your blog, your audience that he could never reach otherwise. Bad publicity is better than none.

    The right response then is to find a way to break this dynamic. You have to get to Joe the evangelical in his language, in their forum and convince them. Not with spin but with accessable truth in their language. I think this is what they mean by framing.

    You have to talk to the IDists audience. Not yours.

    ReplyDelete
  16. "Framing" is just a new term for an old concept.

    It's hardly revolutionary to propose that people need to tell their stories in terms that people can relate to.

    If that is what Mooney/Nisbet are proposing, then I think they are assuming that scientists do not do something they have been doing for a long time.

    If, on the other hand, Mooney/Nisbet are saying that scientists need to be more like salesmen making a "sales pitch", then I'd have to say they are misguided.

    One of the things people like about and respect about scientists is that they tell them the truth. That is a precious commodity in most areas these days and when scientists start behaving like everyone else (media, government, etc), they will have lost their hard-earned position of respect.

    I think Mooney/Nisebt need to take some courses in education (teaching and learning) before they start lecturing scientists about how bets to communicate their knowledege to the public.

    ReplyDelete
  17. "If, on the other hand, Mooney/Nisbet are saying that scientists need to be more like salesmen making a "sales pitch", then I'd have to say they are misguided."

    Why? We as scientists "make sales pitches" all the time when we write grants. We do indeed "spin" our data and message to persuade reviewers, who frequently do not not understand the minutiae of our fields. We do the same thing every time we write a scientific paper; we're "selling" our ideas and science to the reviewers. How is this conceptually much different than doing the same thing with the public, other than that we have to simplify the concepts still more? It is not necessary to "lie" to do this, either.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I have updated my post - see the very bottom of it for my response to critics as well as for new links to good blogospheric responses.

    Considering how ling my post is, and how late at night it was posted, I will attribute your reaction to sloppy reading and not intentional quote-mining. But, as I was thinking about writing a point-by-point response, I realized that every paragraph you picked out to question is followed by a paragraph that already contains the answer. Perhaps a slow, careful re-reading of the post, including the stuff linked from it, may be in order.

    ReplyDelete
  19. coturnix: "Why do liberals misunderstand framing and think it is dishonest? That is why we loose elections and we loose in the popular opinion."

    Is that actually true, though? I don't think it is. The majority of Americans do, in fact, support liberal positions on most topics. Last November, the Democrats overwhelmingly swept the House and won a tenuous but important majority in the Senate. Considering that elections are the American people's best method of giving feedback, that's a resounding endorsement of liberal ideas. It's also a direct contradiction of your suggestion that liberals have a problem with winning elections.

    The fact is, liberals had a nasty losing streak for about a decade because they chose to follow corporatists like the DLC and DCCC. But these are problems with the hierarchical structure of politics and media, not with a failure to communicate to the public! The reformed Democratic party that won in 2006 were driven primarily by the modern grassroots.

    That the news media is still operating under and propagating the right-wing frames is not a sign that science or liberalism are in trouble. It's a sign that the news media are sick and corrupted. But that can be corrected with time.

    With Kitzmiller and the success of An Inconvenient Truth and the 2006 elections, it is clear that the tide is turning in favour of the reality-based community, which necessarily includes scientists and pro-science non-experts. So this navel-gazing about why "we lose elections" seems fantastically out of place and at odds with what's actually been happening in this country recently.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I'm coming late to the party here, but I've got to say that most people are missing the point of the "framing" article (and ironically this may be because of the insanely word-limited requirements of a Science comment article). Framing is not simply about dumbing things down or becoming better communicators. Science (the enterprise) is embedded in a frame - a way of seeing and knowing the world that is somewhat logically consistent and provides explanatory power for a certain set of questions. The argument of the article, as I read it, is that we need to be attentive to alternative frames because we cannot communicate effectively unless we acknowledge their existence and work through them to build understanding.

    This is an idea that is actually central to good science education, although the word "frames" is not commonly used. If you've never seen it before, check out How People Learn, a book by the National Research Council that summarizes the best information we've got about science education. The research in this book shows that good science education requires the educator to understand the conceptual frames of her audience and to speak directly to those frames, rather than simply presenting an alternate view.

    There are a lot of people talking past one another in this debate - it's kind of frustrating.

    ReplyDelete
  21. "Why do liberals misunderstand framing and think it is dishonest? That is why we loose elections and we loose in the popular opinion."

    Coturnix is engaging in strawman framing here.

    Mooney and Nisbet do the same thing. They make unsubstantiated claims -- "scientists make the wrong assumptions about what it means to be a good communicator" -- and then build their entire argument around it.

    Every good scientist knows to look at the assumptions upon which an argument is based.

    ReplyDelete
  22. "There are a lot of people talking past one another in this debate - it's kind of frustrating."

    Not all.

    I made a comment above that "Framing" is just a new term for an old concept."

    Mooney/Nisbet only think they are onto something revolutionary here because they are completely unfamiliar with the relevant research in the area of science education -- something that most science educators are well aware of and regularly put into practice.

    If they knew anything about it, they would not simply assume that scientists make the wrong assumptions about what it means to be an effective communicator of science to the public. Scientists know this very well -- much better than Mooney/Nisbet, at any rate.

    ReplyDelete
  23. In polls, "Scientist" is consistently rated in the top ten for "most respected professions" (up there with doctor, nurse, firefighter, teacher).

    Journalist, on the other hand does not fare so well. In fact, it is often near the bottom of the list (down there with lawyer, politician, used car salesman...you get the picture).

    If we are to assume that respect translates to trust it's clear who the public trusts more.

    I'm not sure why journalists come out at the bottom of that list and I'm not sure we scientists want to find out why.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Anonymous says above (sorry, I don't know the html tag for a block quote):

    "Mooney/Nisbet only think they are onto something revolutionary here because they are completely unfamiliar with the relevant research in the area of science education -- something that most science educators are well aware of and regularly put into practice."

    Actually there are a good number of people who do science education at the college level who don't really know a lot about the research on science education. I'm always surprised when I wave around some of the literature and get blank stares. If they did know and understand the literature, I think the reaction to this Science article might be a little more thoughtful.

    Frame critical education - in which we are aware of the biases and limits of our own frames, and in which we actively reveal and engage the frames of our students or listeners - is not easy. It is, I think, the best way to educate students about science. It is also the best way to educate a skeptical public about policy-relevant scientific knowledge.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Hoooo! Talk about frames. We got two of them here: one is "science" and the other "politics" -- and with two different goals (and contexts) in mind.

    First, there are some lay people who can understand a fair bit of science, and others who have no capacity to understand much of anything, and never will (but who DO vote).

    A frame, at the root, is a context -- it's a "reality system" (or sub-system)in which the existence of some element has meaning. Nothing has meaning without context.

    A 'scientific' reader -- lay or scientist -- won't be fooled by 'truth statements' because they understand that truth is elusive and always underdefined. Those who don't understand that will have great trouble with real science. This sort of thinking can take a very long time to learn.

    So -- do we talk in a scientific context (frame) or a political one?

    _Blue

    ReplyDelete
  26. rbb says,

    Frame critical education - in which we are aware of the biases and limits of our own frames, and in which we actively reveal and engage the frames of our students or listeners - is not easy. It is, I think, the best way to educate students about science. It is also the best way to educate a skeptical public about policy-relevant scientific knowledge.

    Nisbet & Mooney aren't really talking about science education. They're talking about how to frame a polemical debate. Their main examples are the debate over what to do about global warming, how to fight Creationism, and whether the American government should fund stem cell research.

    Part of the problem here is that by writing in Science magazine about "Framing Science," and by addressing scientists, they tread on my turf in a way that's unacceptable.

    You don't alter science in order to conform to what people want to hear.

    Now, with respect to real science writing and real science education, there are clearly good ways to do it and bad ways to do it. One of the good ways is to be aware of one's own opinions and biases and make sure that they don't influence the science you're teaching.

    One of the bad ways is to cater too much to what the students expect and want to hear. Sometimes it's our job to change the perspectives of our students.

    There's a fundamental conflict between the concept of framing and the concept of teaching critical thinking. I'm not saying that the two concepts can't be melded in some way but the over-emphasis on "framing" to me smacks of surrender to fuzzy thinking.

    When you talk about the "best way to educate a skeptical public about policy-relevant scientific knowledge" you are referring to science education and not polemics. As far as I'm concerned there's no compromise here. The best way to educate the public about science is to tell the truth.

    To use one of Nisbet's examples, do we need to tell the public that human embryos will be destroyed in order to create embryonic stem cell lines? He seems to think that's a little detail that we could skip over in order to make stem cells more acceptable. According to him, we need to emphasize the positive benefits of stem cells instead.

    Perhaps that's fine if you're a politician but not if you're a scientist. As a scientist you must be totally honest about these things or you lose credibility. That means you state up front that human embryos will be destroyed and you state honestly that you don't know whether embryonic stem cell research will lead to cures for Parknison's (or anything else). There's no "framing" in science if it means sacrificing the truth.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Perhaps that's fine if you're a politician but not if you're a scientist.

    It's not even good politics beyond the very short term.

    I think I know something about communicating scientific concepts and results to non-scientists; as a forensic scientist who testifies as an expert witness, being able to do that effectively is a major part of my job. And credibility is everything. It's more precious than rubies and once lost is impossible to regain. Trying to promote science by telling half-truths is a losing strategy (as well as being ethically repellent); people might be slow to catch on but they do eventually. As the saying goes, a half truth is a whole lie. I'm with Larry 100%.

    ReplyDelete