Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ohmygod! Not that "Framing" Thing again?

Yes, it's the old framing argument rearing its ugly head. I know, I know, we've probably said just about everything that could be said and we should just agree to disagree. Nisbet and Mooney want us to "spin" science in the interests of promoting their favorite policies. Scientists resist because that's not what science does.

Now we have a posting by Philip H. on The Intersection that makes the issue clearer than ever before. I'm sure Nisbet and Mooney are happy.

Philip H. is discussing a Washington Post article about American voters [The American Voter]. Here's what he says about the scientific aspects of the study ...
Equally interesting to me as a scientist and framer of scientific messages, is how the writer talked about the academic work she reported on. She talks about academic conclusions from a multi-year study "couched in academic understatement." My guess is the social scientists here were doing the usual, scientifically correct thing and describing their data and conclusions within the statistically appropriate confidence intervals. Probably something along the lines of: "our results appear to apply, statistically to the American population within a 95% probability. Alternately, bootstrapped ANCOVA without regression might have yielded..." That may be correct in a talk to the National Academy of Public Administration, but somehow it always leads newspaper reporters.... to wonder what the academics area really saying, and try to get "other sides" of the story. In other words - this is bad framing for an general audience. Thankfully, in this particular case, the "fairness in reporting" stchick works - and it contributes to the reporting. In the case of Creationism/Intelligent Design vs. Evolution, it doesn't.
This is a very important point, one that the "framers" have never made explicitly. The scientific reporting of information may be okay for scientists but when you're talking to non-scientists you've got to be non-scientific. The "scientifically correct" approach just won't do for the hoi-polloi.
I know, I know, scientists hate to make firm conclusions when the data do contain the possibility of error or omission. They even hate to make black and white statements when there is a really LOW probability of error. I took those courses too.
I'm so glad he took the courses. Now he knows how scientists are supposed to behave.
But this is a public policy debate. It is about how to get American voters more engaged, or if they can be more engaged. And if the truth is Americans are one or two issue voters who inherit their political allegiances like a house or a trust fund, those facts tells us something. And no one will fault the scientists for saying so directly, and with out describing the confidence interval.
It's not true that "no one will fault the scientists." I will fault the scientists for lying or distorting the scientific truth by omitting the qualifications. And I'm not alone. Many other scientists think the same way and that's why scientists are not jumping on the spin framing bandwagon (see Going Public with the Scientific Process for a better approach).

[Photo Credit: Blick Art Materials]


  1. This isn't a "framing" problem, it's a cultural problem. We in the U.S. (and undoubtedly elsewhere, but I speak of what I know) are insensitive to the "care" in careful statements, because our culture doesn't support careful statements. Admitting you're not 100% sure of something makes you a wuss. For many people, stating that XYZ is probably true is as good as saying it's false, especially if the listener doesn't want XYZ to be true.

    Rather than framing science, we need to insinuate language precision into our popular culture. Damned if I know how we do that.

  2. But this is a public policy debate. [...] And no one will fault the scientists for saying so directly, and with out describing the confidence interval.

    So, apparently, Peter thinks scientists should adopt demagoguery.

    I'm sure that would have no effect on their credibility...

  3. If you're going to quote him, get his name right. Give you just a little more credibility.

  4. Sandra says,

    If you're going to quote him, get his name right. Give you just a little more credibility.

    Ouch. Point taken. I've changed the posting so that it refers to "Philip H." and not "Peter H."

    I don't know who his person is. He has a blog at DC Dispatches where he identifies himself as "a marine biologist turned strategic planner". I'm guessing he's another "inside the beltway" political junkie like Nisbet and like Mooney used to be before he escaped.

    I'd be happy to get his full name right on the blog. Do you happen to know it?