Monday, April 09, 2007

Science Policy Forum: Framing Science

Many people have accused me of misrepresenting the Nisbet & Mooney article in Science magazine (Science 6 April 2007: Vol. 316: p.56). So, let's step through it and see what we can learn.
Issues at the intersection of science and politics, such as climate change, evolution, and embryonic stem cell research, receive considerable public attention, which is likely to grow, especially in the United States as the 2008 presidential election heats up. Without misrepresenting scientific information on highly contested issues, scientists must learn to actively "frame" information to make it relevant to different audiences. Some in the scientific community have been receptive to this message (1). However, many scientists retain the well-intentioned belief that, if laypeople better understood technical complexities from news coverage, their viewpoints would be more like scientists', and controversy would subside.
I believe that average citizens would be better off if they understood the science behind these controversial issues. As a scientist, I feel competent to explain the science. I also have opinions about things like evolution and embryonic stem cell research and I don't hesitate to proclaim those opinions. Since I'm a scientist, I tend to reason like a scientist. I don't have any great desire to learn how to reason any other way.

I do not believe that the controversy over evolution, for example, will subside when people learn the scientific truth about evolution. I don't recognize the strawman that Nisbet and Mooney have constructed. They say that "scientists must learn to actively "frame" information to make it relevant to different audiences." Let's see what they mean by that. I'm looking forward to seeing the evidence that they've done a better job than scientists of explaining scientific issues. Presumably that evidence is just coming up in the next paragraph.
In reality, citizens do not use the news media as scientists assume. Research shows that people are rarely well enough informed or motivated to weigh competing ideas and arguments. Faced with a daily torrent of news, citizens use their value predispositions (such as political or religious beliefs) as perceptual screens, selecting news outlets and Web sites whose outlooks match their own (2). Such screening reduces the choices of what to pay attention to and accept as valid (3).
I'm well aware of the fact that many citizens do not think like a scientist. I did not "assume" otherwise. I don't know very many scientists who do. In most countries scientists are well-respected and when they say that something is a scientific fact they tend to get the benefit of the doubt. In other words, in those countries the primary source of information about science is scientists, not politicians and pastors. This doesn't seem to be true in America. I wonder what Nisbet & Mooney are proposing to do about it?

Still waiting for the evidence that Nisbet & Money have done a better job by paying attention to "framing."
Frames organize central ideas, defining a controversy to resonate with core values and assumptions. Frames pare down complex issues by giving some aspects greater emphasis. They allow citizens to rapidly identify why an issue matters, who might be responsible, and what should be done (4, 5).
This sounds like psychobabble to me. It's a paragraph without content. It doesn't tell me a thing about what a "frame" is and how it might differ from what I've been doing all my life. It doesn't tell me what a "core value" is. It doesn't tell me why I should have to construct an argument that "resonates" with someone else's—possibly incorrect—assumptions. It also doesn't tell me why I should listen to Nisbet & Mooney.
Consider global climate change. With its successive assessment reports summarizing the scientific literature, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has steadily increased its confidence that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming. So if science alone drove public responses, we would expect increasing public confidence in the validity of the science, and decreasing political gridlock.
Science alone does not drive public responses. Nobody believes that. However, it is the duty of scientists to faithfully report on the science, making sure they get it right. That's what scientists do.

It is the duty of scientists to report on the scientific consensus in a field. If there is no unanimity on an issue it is absolutely essential that a true scientist reveal the controversy as long as it's a legitimate scientific controversy. Hiding a scientific controversy for the sake of political gain is unethical. I hope that's not where they're going with this.
Despite recent media attention, however, many surveys show major partisan differences on the issue. A Pew survey conducted in January found that 23% of college-educated Republicans think global warming is attributable to human activity, compared with 75% of Democrats (6). Regardless of party affiliation, most Americans rank global warming as less important than over a dozen other issues (6). Much of this reflects the efforts of political operatives and some Republican leaders who have emphasized the frames of either "scientific uncertainty" or "unfair economic burden" (7). In a counter-strategy, environmentalists and some Democratic leaders have framed global warming as a "Pandora's box" of catastrophe; this and news images of polar bears on shrinking ice floes and hurricane devastation have evoked charges of "alarmism" and further battles.
That's an interesting bit of information on American politics. I'm not terribly interested but let's see where it's headed.
Recently, a coalition of Evangelical leaders have adopted a different strategy, framing the problem of climate change as a matter of religious morality. The business pages tout the economic opportunities from developing innovative technologies for climate change. Complaints about the Bush Administration's interference with communication of climate science have led to a "public accountability" frame that has helped move the issue away from uncertainty to political wrongdoing.
Scientists have established that global warming has occurred and much of it is probably due to human activity. The question before us is what should we do about it? The action will depend to some extent on what are the predicted consequences of global warming. Scientists can play a role here by reporting on the various climate models and how reliable they are.

Many scientists have already decided that we should do something about global warming by cutting back on carbon dioxide emissions. Most of them reject the argument based on religious morality and most of them probably reject the argument based on "economic opportunities." If there's a point here, I'm not seeing it.

I assume there are some scientists who know about global warming and know that humans are contributing but who don't know whether we should do something about it. Nisbet & Mooney seem to be making an assumption about the opinion of all scientists.

BTW, I still haven't seen any evidence that these two authors have been more persuasive than the average scientist. I'm sure it's going to be mentioned very soon. It's pretty important, don't you think?
As another example, the scientific theory of evolution has been accepted within the research community for decades. Yet as a debate over "intelligent design" was launched, antievolutionists promoted "scientific uncertainty" and "teach-the-controversy" frames, which scientists countered with science-intensive responses. However, much of the public likely tunes out these technical messages. Instead, frames of "public accountability" that focus on the misuse of tax dollars, "economic development" that highlight the negative repercussions for communities embroiled in evolution battles, and "social progress" that define evolution as a building block for medical advances, are likely to engage broader support.
American scientists did not counter with "science-intensive" responses. Instead, for the most part they countered with legal arguments for keeping Intelligent Design Creationism out of the public schools. They let the Creationists set the agenda by fighting the battle in the courts where the Creationists could win even when they lose. Scientists turned the fight over to the lawyers.

I totally reject the argument that we should focus on the economic advantages of evolution over creationism on the grounds that it's something that the public will understand. I reject it because it is probably untrue and it's a cop-out. No respectable scientist will argue that evolution should be accepted over Intelligent Design Creationism because America will be more prosperous if citizens accept evolution.
The evolution issue also highlights another point: Messages must be positive and respect diversity. As the film Flock of Dodos painfully demonstrates, many scientists not only fail to think strategically about how to communicate on evolution, but belittle and insult others' religious beliefs (8).
Some religious beliefs deserve to be belittled and insulted. Is this just another argument for appeasement and so-called "tolerance" dressed up to look more intellectual?

Let's think strategically for a minute. The fight is between religion and science. Let's not forget that key point as we try to understand what Nisbet & Mooney are wanting us to do about it. The fight is not about whether belief in evolution offers better economic advantages. Even if that were true, the average Christian fundamentalist would not accept evolution. And if it turned out not to be true there would be very few scientists switching to Intelligent Design Creationism.

It sounds like we're getting close to learning how Nisbet & Mooney would handle this issue. I can't wait to see what they've done to advance the cause of evolution and defeat Intelligent Design Creationism. I'm sure they wouldn't be lecturing scientists on how to behave if they didn't have proof that their way is better.
On the embryonic stem cell issue, by comparison, patient advocates have delivered a focused message to the public, using "social progress" and "economic competitiveness" frames to argue that the research offers hope for millions of Americans. These messages have helped to drive up public support for funding between 2001 and 2005 (9, 10). However, opponents of increased government funding continue to frame the debate around the moral implications of research, arguing that scientists are "playing God" and destroying human life. Ideology and religion can screen out even dominant positive narratives about science, and reaching some segments of the public will remain a challenge (11).
I can't figure this out. There are people who oppose embryonic stem cell research because God tells them it's wrong. What are we supposed to do about that? Do we understand and appreciate what they're saying and debate the issue of religion vs. science? Or do we try and convince them that they should go against God's word because some other people might be cured by stem cell research? That'll really work, right? I don't get the point here.
Some readers may consider our proposals too Orwellian, preferring to safely stick to the facts. Yet scientists must realize that facts will be repeatedly misapplied and twisted in direct proportion to their relevance to the political debate and decision-making. In short, as unnatural as it might feel, in many cases, scientists should strategically avoid emphasizing the technical details of science when trying to defend it.
This article is so confusing that I really don't know how to respond. I don't know any scientist who thinks that emphasizing technical details is all there is to good science education. Sometimes the authors seem to be arguing that we should use non-scientific arguments to advance our case. Other times they seem to be saying that we should avoid talking about religion—this would be like ignoring a hippo in the room. And still other times they seem to be saying that we need to improve the teaching of science.

And they do all this without ever showing me why I should even bother listening to them. I don't see one single example of an article by either Mooney or Nisbet that illustrates the superiority of their method. Come on, guys, if you're going to criticize scientists for the way they write about science then at least have the courtesy to establish your credentials.

I can tell you one thing. This article sure would have benefited from peer review.


  1. It is interesting the way that criticism of/support for the article is breaking down -- along professional lines, with most of the scientists who have reviewed it critical and most of the non-scientists (journalists, policy wonks, etc) supportive.

    Perhaps you are right:
    'This article sure would have benefited from peer review."

    It sure is getting it now, isn't it?

  2. Let's think strategically for a minute. The fight is between religion and science.

    Well, if you want to give The Enemy the high ground and just about guarantee that you'll lose, that's as good a way to (pardon the expression) frame the debate as I can think of. Forget "framing" - you've lost.

    I'm a member of your lay audience, an atheist of 30+ years standing, and I think that you and Myers are out to lunch. From my perspective, here's what you seem determined to ignore - there are a great many people who would count themselves as religious who should be and could be on "your side." And yet you seem to be bending your efforts to annoying them to the maximum extent.

    Example - "I'm having too much of a good time blowing raspberries at the godly." And that's a mild example. What the hell is the point? How people who write lucidly, engagingly, even elegantly about science can turn into screeching and ineffectual harpies as soon as religion is mentioned remains a mystery to me.

    The people I'm talking about are not interested in responding to some atheist screeching at them and demanding "proof." They also have no patience with using "God said so" as an argument for public policy, by the way. There are a whole bunch of them, and this is even more broadly true in Canada than in the US. You're not going to convince the extreme fringe ... why waste your time yelling at them, painting all believers with the same brush, and annoying a lot of potential (or actual) allies in the middle?

    A few months back, I pointed a few folks interested in learning more about science topics at two of these blogs as a start - Pharyngula and The Loom. The Loom? "Great stuff!" Pharyngula? "Why waste my time when every other append is a shrill antireligious screed? Do many scientists feel this way?"

    The result? No danger that they'll get even get close to ID ... but they are so turned off by the tone from much of the "science" side that they may well just tune out the debate entirely. Most people have lives to live and lots of other things to think about. Science is simply not the focal point of most people's lives.

    As I said, I'm just a member of your lay audience, and I'm sure neither of you want my advice. But here it is anyhow (you knew that was coming, didn't you?) - stick to science. As soon as you start babbling about religion, you do more harm than good.

    There ... I feel better now. This had been building up for a while, but the tide of irrelevant and unhelpful crap from the science side just shows no signs of abating. Mind you, I wouldn't want you to think I felt strongly about it ...

  3. Scott, there are two separate problems here.

    First. The fight is between science and religion whether you like it or not. If you ignore that then you've lost. Dawkins and others know this and it's why they've been effective in moving the debate out into the open. The idea is not to concede the high ground to the religious right. They don't occupy it in spite of the fact that they seem to have convinced you.

    Second. How you carry on the fight between religion and science or, as I prefer to state it, rationalism and superstition, is a matter of tactics and personal preference. All aspects of this debate are essential, including those of us who come right out and say what needs to be said.

    Now, in the fight between science and religion, I'm curious about the religious people who are "on my side." Can you identify some of those people to me? They must be really interesting people. :-)

    We've said this dozens of times but it's worth repeating once more. In order to move public opinion you need to have voices on the extreme edge of opinion. You don't change hearts and minds by catering to the middle. It's the middle that needs to be moved.

    What you're advocating is the same-old, same-old. It didn't work in the past and there's no evidence that it would work in the future. Yes, some people are going to be upset. It's like training a mule, you have to first hit them over the head to get their attention.

    Look in recent months at how many times atheists have been on television or in the newspapers and newsmagazines. Why is that? Is it because of people like Dawkins and PZ Myers or is it because of people who don't ruffle any feathers and bend over backwards to avoid upsetting the religious moderates?

    I'm aiming for a society like we see in Western Europe or Scandinavia where close to a majority are non-believers and the middle has moved so far towards non-belief that the religious fundamentalists are totally isolated. I don't think there's anyone in Sweden who thinks that the religious right occupys the high ground.

  4. "All aspects of this debate are essential, including those of us who come right out and say what needs to be said."

    Right! Nisbet and Mooney have a fuzzified concept of framing, and they have failed to put their message in the scientists frame.

    They have a point in that more can be done, but they also narrow and conflict their own perspective to a nationalistic and pro-religious (ie anti-scientific) one.

    Individual scientists, interest groups with scientists and science as a whole will use different methods of presentation. There is certainly a role for the provocative individuals who points out the hippo.

    "I don't think there's anyone in Sweden who thinks that the religious right occupys the high ground."

    This isn't simple IMHO. Sweden has had a generally more lazy adoption of religions since the adoption of lutheranism as intended broke the former economical and political power of the catholic church. But there are also areas with other evangelical churches and communities or groups of cults, now lately including US televangelists styles.

    Both of these phenomena are mostly negatively seen by the large community it seems, probably since the groups mindset and actions are now rather foreign and can often be seen to be provocative or harmful. (Last seen as a community cult priest arranging murders of a series of wives. It turned out he and his female companion had severe psychological problems. Imagine that.)

    But we have also the european phenomena of christdemocratic politicians.

    The party has soaked up support mainly from older religious believers. It tries to make issues such as abortions, stem cell technology and homosexual marriages morally problematic, probably taking its cues from international fundamentalist views. Even if it has succeeded in making these views politically possible, the views and politics themselves have met with limited success.

  5. It is interesting the way that criticism of/support for the article is breaking down -- along professional lines, with most of the scientists who have reviewed it critical and most of the non-scientists (journalists, policy wonks, etc) supportive.

    The more I think about your conclusion the more I'm puzzled by it. You're right, of course, but lots of journalists pretend to be strictly neutral in their reporting. They claim to be just reporting facts. The idea of "framing" in order to promote an personal opinion should be unethical for most journalists.

    Nesbit and Mooney seem to be writing for polemicists and politicians and not for journalists and science writers. Yes, there are "science writers" who are also polemicists—I am one—but I think N & M made a mistake by confusing the two. That's why they ended up insulting so many scientists.

  6. I was watching Manufacturing Consent last night and there was one bit at the end that really reminded me of this debate. Here's a quote:

    Noam Chomsky: Suppose I get on "Nightline". I'm given two minutes and I say Quaddifi is a terrorist or Khomeini is a murderer. Everyone just nods. On the other hand, suppose you say something that isn't just regurgitating conventional pieties. Suppose you say
    [clips of Noam from other interviews]
    Noam Chomsky: "The best political leaders are the ones that are lazy and corrupt", "Education is a system of imposed ignorance", "Fundamentally, there is no more morality in world affairs today then there was at the time of Genghis Khan"
    [Back to speech]
    Noam Chomsky: People will want to know what you mean. Why did you say that? You'd better have a lot of evidence. But you can't give evidence if you're stuck with the concision of "Nightline". You end up sounding like you're from Neptune.

    If you're challenging the traditional views then a soundbite in the media isn't the way to do it. You need to be able to offer evidence because that's what people are going to be looking for when their views are challenged. I think scientists are in the same position in many of the public debates that are going on right now.

  7. Have you read the new book? -- "The public is from Mars, Scientists are from Neptune."

    Now, I know they use frames on Mars, because I have seen pictures of them. But I wonder, do they use frames on Neptune as well?

  8. Great post.

    I want to underscore your point regarding science's response to creationists: It is very true that especially in the US the "counter argument" is not about the science, but about the legality, basing the argument on the Establishment Clause. We have not kept creationism out of the classroom because it is wrong, we've kept it out of the classroom because putting in the classroom is unconstitutional.

    Thats actually a pretty sad state of things. We're lucky that the legal argument is working for us!

  9. For those who do not wish to pay to access the above article, here's a presentation that Nisbet has given on Framing science:
    "Framing Science: understanding the Battle Over Public Opinion in Policy Debates"

    I think the title says everything you need to know about what the author thinks the purpose of framing science is, but in just case not, here are his conclusions:

    "Science literacy and public engagement models are limited, esp. when thinking about the “mass public.”

    For strategic communication, there is nothing essentially unique or different about science from other political issues.

    Battle for public opinion is about activating favorable predispositions and these predispositions are then used as powerful filtering devices by public.

    Frames are the primary tools of activation. Miserly citizens use frames in combination with their value predispositions to cut down on information costs."

    [end Nisbet quotes]

    From the above, it is clear that Nesbit's idea of framing is more about "battling for public opinion" than it is about educating the public on science.

    In both cases, opinions can be changed, of course, but in the latter case (education) people are making up their own minds.

    I guess the fundamental question then becomes "Which outcome (changing opinions or educating) are scientists looking for?"

    When it comes to public outreach, are scientists out to change opinions or are we out to do something else?

  10. "We're lucky that the legal argument is working for us!"

    The legal argument is working for us because our democracy is still working.

    But, as Thomas Jefferson noted, a properly functioning democracy like ours depends on an educated populace -- not an opinionated populace.

    Guess what that means?

  11. What worries me the most about framing is the "win" now mentality that hinders the efforts of science in the future which is how Nisbet and Mooney are coming across in their follow-ups. Nisbet:
    "The "creation stewardship" frame activates attention and interest from Evangelicals on the issue of global warming, perhaps mobilizing some to seek out "science rich" information sources like the science coverage at a major newspaper or the executive summary of the IPCC report.

    But for the great majority of Evangelicals, the fact that global warming can be perceived as a religious and moral concern--joining abortion, gay marriage, and poverty as issues they should care about--is good enough for them.

    That's the power and influence of framing when it resonates with an individual's social identity. It plays on human nature by allowing a citizen to make up their minds in the absence of knowledge, and importantly, to articulate an opinion. It's definitely not the scientific or democratic ideal, but it's how things work in society."

    I am sorry I have seen enough of a society in which people "make up their minds in the absence of knowledge, and importantly, to articulate an opinion." It is the culture in the US that has given us the Bush presidency.

  12. "It is the culture in the US that has given us the Bush presidency."

    yeh, but let's not forget all the other stuff American "Opinion Culture" has given us:

    American Idol,
    Dom Imus,
    Ann Coulter,
    Britney Spears,
    OJ Simpson,
    Homer Simpson,
    Beavis and Butthead,...
    the list goes on an on.

    There's not enough room on this server or on all the servers in the wold combined to list all the invaluable things American "Culture" has produced (ie, like those above).

    So, it can't be as bad as you imply.

  13. The reason why some of us reject Nisbet's idea of framing (with its focus on changing opinions rather than educating)is not because we don't think it would work.

    On the contrary. We know it works because we have seen it in action -- albeit in other contexts: political campaigns, product advertising and disinformation campaigns.

    Some of us simply don't believe that such framing is appropriate for getting out the word on scientific issues.