Saturday, April 21, 2007

Framing Framing

 
If, like me, you're confused about the message that Mooney and Nisbet are conveying then I urge you to listen to this podcast [Matthew Nisbet]. Here's the introduction on the Point of Inquiry website.
In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Nisbet explores the issue of “framing science” in the public mind, how scientists may be failing at effectively communicating the importance of the implications of science for society, and steps the science community may take to more expertly sell their science to a disinterested public. He also argues about Richard Dawkins and his effect on the public appreciation of science, and the impact of linking atheism with science for issues such as stem-cell research, teaching evolution in the public schools, and global warming.
Nisbet links to the podcast on his website [Podcast: More on Framing (and Dawkins)] where he says,
In this week's show, host DJ Grothe and I engage in a lively forty-five minute discussion. You can listen here.

I offer more details on:

--> the nature of framing and media influence.
--> does framing mean false spin?
--> the likely negative impact of Dawkins.
--> communication strategy specific to the teaching of evolution in schools.
--> what the Discovery Institute understood about framing (also see this post.)
--> the role of framing in the debates over climate change and stem cell research.
--> the use of "science navigators" in communication campaigns.
-->an effective means for engaging the broader American public on atheism.
I take that to mean that Nisbet thinks he did a good job of explaining these things during the interview.

I urge everyone who has an interest in this debate to take the time (45 minutes) to listen to the interview. At the end of it you should have a very good idea of the issues. Nisbet tries to frame the framing debate to make it look like it's all about "proper" media communication. He sets himself up—along with Chris Mooney—as the social scientist who really understands how society works. Scientists are the social bumpkins who need a lot of coaching from the "experts."

It doesn't work for me. To me it reveals that Nisbet is simply expressing his own personal opinion about many issues. For example, he makes it very clear that, in his opinion, Dawkins is harming the cause of science education. The interview is full of spin framing about how unimportant it is that Dawkins has a book on the bestseller list. Some of the contortions that Nisbet puts us through are actually quite funny. The interviewer (Grothe) really has him twisting in the wind at several points.

After listing to the interview I think I now know enough about Nisbet to ignore him from now on. He doesn't have anything useful to say as far as I'm concerned so this is the end of my involvement in this debate. The fans of framing will no doubt be ecstatic about the interview.

I'm reminded of the two cultures debates in the 1960's. If you don't know what I'm talking about then please follow the link to the Wikipedia article.

19 comments :

  1. The N&M show is starting to look ridiculous at this point. At least from looking at Nisbet's list of soundbites. I'm probably not going to waste more time on this, so I thank you for making the effort of listen through and presenting an analysis. (I gave up about a week ago, when it became evident that the suggested model of presentation would give no firm suggestions in N&M hands anytime soon. Well, except for negative criticism of Dawkins and his seeming successes.)

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  2. Torbjon,
    Actually Larry's post and your reaction just reinforce my central arguments.

    a) Larry reframes or "boils down" a 45 conversation into a dismissive post that reflects his hardened worldview.

    b) As an ideologically like-minded reader of his blog, you use his post as an information short cut to ignore the 45 minutes of media content. ;-)

    Best,
    Matt

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  3. b) As an ideologically like-minded reader of his blog, you use his post as an information short cut to ignore the 45 minutes of media content. ;-)

    Umm.... wasn't the point of "framing" to make it so that people didn't have to listen to 45 minutes of media content to understand how it resonates with their "core values and assumptions?"

    Σ8)

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  4. The interviewer had a good question on EO Wilson: isn't he already framing his environmental stewardship message the way M&N recommend? Yes, but he doesn't get the attention because he is not feeding the 'conflict frame'. What should he do, then? This is left hanging in the air.

    Also, N. says environmental alarmism is backfiring, instead we should say that our grandchildren will pay the price of GW. But if the environment is not going to get fucked up, where is this huge cost of GW supposed to come from?

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  5. What I find most disappointing about Matt Nisbet's approach is how willing he is to dismiss all criticism. Larry Moran (who did take the time to listen to the interview) is dismissed for having a hardened world view. Torbjörn Larsson is dismissed as a closed minded ideologue. In general rather than respond to direct questions from critics, he summarizes all the negative response as coming from a vocal minority (as if to imply their small number makes them easy to dismiss).

    A very important point that he misses is that his writings are getting attention from PZ Myers, Larry Moran and others not because they have hardened world view, quite the opposite, these people are reading and responding because they are interested in promoting science literacy and are open to advice on how to improve their approach. The fact that they find nothing of value in the message ought to give Nisbet serious pause for thought.

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  6. The problem is that Moran and others reject all concepts of framing based on what N&M say. N&M's paper might be garbage, their opinions on the issue might lack merit, but none of that detracts from the basic idea that framing is an important issue.

    To re-use an example I threw out in a separate thread.. If you're asked to give a presentation on climate change to a group of people, you'll likely create a powerpoint with some graphs, pictures, etc. Now suppose you're asked to give a presentation on the same topic to a group of blind people.

    Are you going to use the same presentation? If you say yes, I'd suggest that you're an idiot. If you say no, then you're framing the science - presenting it in such a way that it can be absorbed by your audience.

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  7. logically speaking said: "N&M's paper might be garbage, their opinions on the issue might lack merit, but none of that detracts from the basic idea that framing is an important issue."

    I don't recall that Larry Moran and PZ Myers ever questioned that point.

    As people who are both very good at communicating science, they use framing all the time: presenting the science in a way that makes it interesting and meaningful to their audience.

    To claim that they don't know what framing is about is just nonsense.

    What Moran and Myers have questioned is the particular brand of framing that M & N have been selling -- framing to change opinions without educating.

    The question is not whether framing works or about whether scientists know this. I suspect that anyone who has been involved with science education does (though they may have known "framing" by another name -- "making science relevant for your audience", for example).

    The question is really about what type of framing is most appropriate for communicating science.

    Who knows this better -- a communications guy and a journalist? or scientists and science educators who do it every day?

    If anything, Larry Moran and PZ Myers have bent over backward to try to figure out what M & N are saying. In most cases, scientists simply ignore stuff that has not gone through peer-review -- because it has not met minimum standards of scholarship.

    I think a large part of the problem here is that M & N have simply not sorted this stuff out in their own mind yet and are making it up as they go along.


    If that were not the case, before they ever wrote their article, they would have clearly identified the problem they were trying to solve an provided specific evidence for why they have defined the problem as they have

    Is the reason that scientists are having trouble getting the message out

    a) that scientists have done a poor job of communicating? -- s M & N claim (without presenting evidence)

    b) that scientists have been fighting a politically motivated disinformation campaign

    c) that people make decisions based on things like religion that are largely outside scientists' control?

    d) something else?


    What is the real issue and what is the evidence for it?

    That's a very basic thing: to provide evidence for one's claims and solving the wrong problem is going to do no one any good.


    In addition to identifying the problem, N & M should have provided a detailed rationale for why it should be solved in a certain way.

    Why should scientists be targeted to change their communication strategies?

    Before writing their paper in Science, M & N should have compiled a detailed book of specific case studies demonstrating how specific framing has worked for specific scientific cases.

    They should have also had another book of detailed suggestions for how specific scientific cases might be framed to yield specific results.

    Finally, they should have talked to scientists and science educators to see how they actually do things and to find out what they thought.


    How many actual scientists did they talk to about this stuff before they published their paper in Science?

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  8. Dr. Moran,

    I posted earlier on your blog about framing. I still think scientists fail to reach the general audience. They are trained to discuss very technical topics with other subject matter experts, and train others to do the same, using a very specialized language. The result is they fail to reach the general public that does not have the basics to understand the arguments. What I mean by that is the audience doesn't have a background in math, chemistry, physics, biology, or whatever is needed.

    Additionally science is generally segregated into separate disciplins within each specialty. Scientists are reticint to try to speak authoritively about areas outside their expertise. Rightly so. But, the psudoscientists have no such cumpulsions.

    The DI consisently use framing and talk outside their expertise. As I stated on PZ's blog their audience doesn't understand explanations given that use riggorous scientific explanations. If you insist on being too scientific in an explanation the DI audience automatically turns-off. In this reguard the DI psudoscientist is insulated from your completely rational explanations and debunking. The only people you reach is your audience. To the psudoscientist you give him publicity in an audience he could not normally reach, your students and faculty in your language.

    That is why they hate the idea of framing. If you frame your argument in a language that is understandable to their audience you have a wedge. They love your and PZ's responses in science-speak. I don't advocate spin, just finding arguments using common language, and simple explanations using generally understood examples eg. Dogs to explain variation, not fruit flies or zebra fish.

    Finding ways to simplify very technical subjects is difficult. It takes special expertise, and a very good grasp of the topics that often cross disciplins. I have my degrees in Geophysics and have been a technical writer dealing with electronics and mechanics of complex military systems that have included chemical and biologiclal defence systems. I call framing "targeting the audience" the question is am I talking to experts, managers, or general audiences.

    You decide, but the important thing to analyze is what is happening on the ground. Is the status-quo working or is science in denial - like GW Bush.

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  9. "As an ideologically like-minded reader of his blog, you use his post as an information short cut to ignore the 45 minutes of media content. ;-)"

    If you had taken the time to google my comments on blogs discussing framing, including your own, you would see that I was rather active and totally neutral towards framing the first week. I am on record of claiming that even though I didn't really understand the undefined concept (as it was then) I thought it could be a useful method. I still do.

    But when my questions didn't get any answers, directly and indirectly, and no firm suggestions on specific cases were made, I decided to inhibit further investment of time for the time being. (To use a frame suggested here, my back was beginning to feel strained. :-)

    You can see here and elsewhere that it is your's and Mooney's framing that I'm dissatisfied with.

    That you don't read my comments thoroughly, and instead accuse me of basing my actions on this blog is rather ironic. And I wouldn't know about your 45 minutes of media content without this blog, and I wouldn't listen for such a long time. The post informed me on 45 minutes of media content.

    I'm not sure how my reaction has any bearing on your central arguments. Perhaps if they had been appropriately framed, I would have been satisfied with soundbites. :-) Probably not, though, I'm not that kind of person.

    I'm also not sure what ideology you identify (frame?) me and Moran with. Sure, we are both scientists, and that is perhaps an ideology. But I'm not really confident that I share another "organized collection of ideas" with anyone in particular.

    amstar:
    I think your analysis is spot on.

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  10. Matt Nisbet said:

    Torbjon,
    Actually Larry's post and your reaction just reinforce my central arguments.
    "Larry reframes or "boils down" a 45 conversation into a dismissive post that reflects his hardened worldview.

    b) As an ideologically like-minded reader of his blog, you use his post as an information short cut to ignore the 45 minutes of media content. ;-)"

    [end Nisbet quote]


    If Nisbet wanted to make sure that people know he is more interested in putting people down than in informing them, he has succeeded.

    A communications "expert", of all people, should know that you don't make converts with condescending remarks.

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  11. This is just hilarious, in light of what he and Nisbet have been doing.

    Posted by Chris Mooney on his blog:

    "On some level, Dawkins seems to recognize how hard it is to reach people who come to the table with vastly different assumptions than one's own. And yet at the same time, he proceeds to insult them...the first step towards never reaching someone."

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  12. Dennis,

    Nobody in this debate is seriously disagreeing with any of the points you make. Most of us are old enough and smart enough to have thought of them many years ago. We may not be capable of doing a good job but to suggest that tailoring your message to the audience is a radical new idea for scientists is extremely insulting.

    Mooney & Nisbet are not saying what you think they're saying. They aren't telling us to tailor the message to the audience. They're telling us to change the message to conform to their personal prejudices.

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  13. Yep, that's what irritates me most. I appreciate advice on how to better communicate my message, I resent it when my communications advisor tells me to replace my message with his message.


    Larry, you were so gentle with Dennis. I would have thought that favoring dogs over zebrafish and flies (without even an acknowledgment of bacteria!) would have provoked a slightly more snappish response!

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  14. They aren't telling us to tailor the message to the audience. They're telling us to change the message to conform to their personal prejudices.

    I think they're saying both. It's that two-step PZ mentioned a week ago. It's "tailor the message" when "the message" is about getting scientific concepts across to the average public, but once atheism enters the frame, it's "tailor the message by changing it to something else." When PZ or Larry complain about the latter, they're met with arguments about the usefulness and benefits of the former.

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  15. amstar :

    The fact that they find nothing of value in the message ought to give Nisbet serious pause for thought.

    PZ has said several times he finds something value in their message, though he disagrees with much of what they say. See here .

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  16. "condescending remarks"

    Hmm. Maybe I'm not subtle or emotive enough to pick up on such nuances of communication. I obviously agree with amstar that I (and Moran) was summarily dismissed (now and implicitly earlier), which is why I was riled enough to go at length earlier. I don't think Nisbet meant to be condescending since that would be cross purpose to his goals.

    And frankly I can't get that feeling or logic out of what he said. He didn't imply directly or indirectly that Moran or I were inferior in any sense that I can see.

    I think his mention of ideology could be intended to be a hasty conclusion of "no frames" or "ardent atheism" - if it is about the science it is obviously the ideology he wants to address with his proposal. As I noted the first conclusion is incorrect.

    On the remaining, I would actually be glad if my thinking has progressed enough to be coherent with any already "organized collection of ideas". I'm currently intending to leave my youthful idealism I finally outgrew, so I'm trying on different ideas.

    However, I don't think I'm settled enough to comply with any other ideologies than science, which was never an issue here. Yes, I'm an ardent atheist right now, but my basis is tentatively harder than Dawkins or Moran AFAIK. So that preposterous claim of Nisbet got my goat too. Let us say that I'm not impressed with his powers of analysis or communication.
    ....
    ....
    ....
    Hoping that this is the last comment on framing I will make (until such time there are actual proposals following from the idea of framings), I can't refrain from being unfair to N&M by referring to a part of the local debate I just stumbled on.

    Well, the local bit isn't strictly unfair since N&M insists on judging Dawkins from the US frame. But I haven't followed the last week of discussion and this may be treated already. However, as I'm completely new to this meta debate on how to make debates I am interested in other perspectives.

    A researcher in political science warns of the dangers for science in media communication.

    Today Bo Rothstein from Gothenburg University published a newspaper column, where he detailed the damage from journalism on science.

    Roughly translated, he mentions three of several problem:
    - When a journalist wants to make a popular political point of view ("the media hunt") they fish around until they find a political scientist who acknowledge that point, with or without research. They then proceed to make this out as the view of the whole field.

    - If the political scientist doesn't comply with the media campaign, his/her own message doesn't get out.

    - Journalists steal research under the impression of cooperation. Rothstein had contributed the research that made a specific news article possible. But the editor overruled the author to strike the notice of Rothstein's essential contribution. (Against the (local) ethical code of journalists, he claims.)

    Now, he notes, he can't use his knowledge or his interpretation in this matter since it seems to be plagiarized from the news article he contributed to.

    His conclusion: '... as a scientist one doesn't feel compelled to help mass media with information in order to increase the quality in the communication between the public and the research community'.

    ( http://www.dn.se/DNet/jsp/polopoly.jsp?d=572&a=642134 )

    Note that the journalists framing overruled the scientists, so it wasn't simply a matter of insufficient framing as I understand it.

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  17. "PZ has said several times he finds something value in their message"

    Agreed. I will have to retract my claim that amstar was "spot" on.

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  18. And I accept the correction. It is never a good idea to use such absolute terms. I respect the fact the PZ has stayed engaged in the discussion and in the latest exchange is working to keep the discussion productive and positive.

    My other point stands. Nisbet continues to belittle any and all criticism. He is trying to spin his message and he is doing a piss poor job at it. For example, over at Pharyngula Larry M made a comment in which he mistakenly used an exaggerated census number. Rather that address the larger point raised, Nisbet choses to dismiss Larry completely. This type of response is unlikely to win over his critics.

    Click on amstar up there. I am his target audience. Since I get an electronic copy of Science delivered to my computer every Friday, I was probably one of the first people to read the initial article. I am interested in the issues he raises, but I do not believe he has offered much of substance. The critical attention his writings has garnered represents an incredible opportunity. If he can win over the vocal skeptics they have the potential to become some of his biggest boosters. He is squandering this opportunity by dismissing rather than addressing their criticisms.

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  19. Dennis:

    I posted earlier on your blog about framing. I still think scientists fail to reach the general audience. They are trained to discuss very technical topics with other subject matter experts, and train others to do the same, using a very specialized language. The result is they fail to reach the general public that does not have the basics to understand the arguments. What I mean by that is the audience doesn't have a background in math, chemistry, physics, biology, or whatever is needed.

    That makes sense. But it isn't true. Go listen to Science Friday, for instance. The guests are not communicators, they are scientists. Sometimes they have a hard time communicating but on average they do a better job than other sorts of professionals interviewed in similar media.

    There are a number of reasons why we should expect scientists to be GOOD communicators, not bad communicators. The fact that scientists use jargon in their work (and we may do less of that than you think) does not mean that scientists are tongue tied or unable to communicate otherwise.

    A jet fighter pilot can do things in her job that you or I could not do, and spends a lot of time working in that mode. That does not mean that she cannot run a lawn mower or operate a blender or preheat an oven or use a power drill or drive a car, or that she is not as good as these things as other people are.

    Believe me, within the conversations that go on within science, we have to know how to communicate with each other ... often across disciplines that have totally different jargon.

    What you are saying is what almost everyone says. Without much proof.

    (One retort to my usual comments on this is to mention anecdotally science professors you knew who could not be understood. These nearly fictional or exaggerated people are rare, I have been in the sciences for years and can't think of very many.... chances are such individuals are merely burned out or incompetent. These are not characteristics reserved for the sciences!

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