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Thursday, November 08, 2007

What Is Framing?

Matt Nisbet is still puzzled over opposition to framing. He doesn't understand why some of us don't like the idea very much. Personally, I don't think it's much different than "spin."

Nisbet's latest lament is posted today [UPDATED SECTION: What is framing? [video]].
If the blog debate that ensued after publication of our article at Science showed anything, it was just how widely misunderstood the concept of framing might be. Not surprisingly, many bloggers offer strong opinions about framing and its relationship to science communication but have very little actual knowledge or expertise in the area.
Yes, that must be the answer. We don't understand framing but as soon as we do we'll get right to it. Not.

Matt, you've explained the concept as well as you can—which isn't very well as it turns out. On your website you give us some fine examples of framing [What Is Framing?]. Here they are in case anyone doesn't get it.
Frame devices are used strategically in almost any policy debate. Consider just a few prominent and successful examples of such devices that have been used to alter the focus of policy:

1. Republicans have used the frame device "death tax" to recast estate tax policy in populist terms and to trigger wider public concern.

2. Democrats have used the phrase "gun safety" to shift the traditional debate over "gun control" away from a focus on civil liberties and instead toward an emphasis on public health.

3. Greenpeace has used the term "frankenfood" to redefine food biotechnology in terms of unknown risks and consequences rather than the industry-promoted focus on solving world hunger.

4. Religious conservatives have relabeled the medical procedure know as "dilation and extraction" as "partial birth abortion," pushing decision-making on whether to use the procedure away from doctors and into the hands of Congress and the courts.

5. Anti-smoking advocates have promoted the term "big tobacco," a headline-friendly phrase that immediately emphasizes considerations of corporate accountability and wrongdoing.

6. Anti-evolutionists have coined the slogan "teach the controversy," which instantaneously signals their preferred interpretation that there are holes in the theory of evolution and that teaching rival explanations for life's origins is really a matter of intellectual freedom.
I get it. I don't want any part of that kind of "framing."

Matt says that scientists should engage in framing. I say they shouldn't, and it's not because I don't understand what framing is all about. These are the "successful" examples, in Matt's opinion, and he's supposed to be the expert. Why is he surprised at the opposition to framing? Why should scientists attempt to mimic these examples of misleading and highly deceptive spin?
Is framing just false spin? What may have led to this misperception is that several examples of highly effective messaging have originated from groups or individuals with special interests. While the content of some of these messages such as Greenpeace's "Frankenfood" is debatable, these messages have been more effective in reaching key audiences than many efforts that originated from the scientific community.
In other words; yes, successful framing can be the same as false spin. Thanks for explaining that, Matt.



21 comments :

  1. Larry,
    Instead of research and systematic investigation, when it comes to communicating with the public, I guess you prefer to rely solely on your own personal experience, intuition, and biases.

    That doesn't strike me as very scientific! ;-)

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  2. Quite agreed.

    Isn't the point of science, and of the authoritative statements of scientists, that these attempt to avoid framing as much as possible, and rely on the evidence?

    It's bizarre that we're trying to save science and its reliance on the evidence (with minimal bias) from the barbarians, only to have Nisbet and Mooney tell us that we ought to adopt tactics which go against the methods and statements of science in order to "save science" from the vandals.

    I do understand that others frame science issues, and arguably they are right to do so. But we're against ID partly because it attempts to frame the discussion according to its own terms, while we're insisting the importance of evidence and theories which describe the world without framing and propaganda (or anyway, to utilize the "objective" practices as these are understood across the board). To frame the methods of science as if these were politically expeditious points and preferences only undercuts our actual purpose in promoting science, which is to maintain a relatively "objective" area of discussion and practice.

    Plus, the IDiots are already claiming that evolution is the result of some sort of "framing" exercise, which we refute by pointing out that it is anything but that. While the rubes will believe just about anything the hacks at the DI says, regardless of the truth, the last thing we want is for the intelligent and educated segments of society to recognize any semblance of the IDiots' charges against us.

    Glen D

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  3. Oh, please, give me a frikkin' break here. In actuality, you love framing of this type.

    Every time you label more moderate atheists as "appeasers" or "Neville Chamberlain" atheists, you're framing in very much the same sort of manner as the six examples given by Nesbit.

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  4. Framing may not be "just" false spin, but the 6 examples cited seem to be deceptive and misleading. And when a proponent of framing cites these, and only these, as "prominent and successful examples," then I think LM is right to be, um, just a bit skeptical. It is indeed puzzling that Mr. Nisbet does not understand the opposition to this from folks who are -- how shall we say? -- honest.

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  5. Oh, please, give me a frikkin' break here. In actuality, you love framing of this type.

    Every time you label more moderate atheists as "appeasers" or "Neville Chamberlain" atheists, you're framing in very much the same sort of manner as the six examples given by Nesbit.


    Of course. But that's the beauty of doublethink, practiced to some degree by everyone -- opponents use "spin" and "propaganda" while oneself and allies simply "frame" or "honestly communicate".

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  6. Orac says,

    Every time you label more moderate atheists as "appeasers" or "Neville Chamberlain" atheists, you're framing in very much the same sort of manner as the six examples given by Nesbit.

    First, let me say, once again, that I have heard the complaints about "Neville Chamberlain" and I'm trying to avoid that term.

    Second, atheism ain't science. I'm perfectly comfortable using rhetorical devices in some venues. It's lot's of fun.

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  7. Mathew Nisbet says,

    Instead of research and systematic investigation, when it comes to communicating with the public, I guess you prefer to rely solely on your own personal experience, intuition, and biases.

    That doesn't strike me as very scientific! ;-)


    Matt, I don't think I know everything about how to communicate science to the general public. No doubt there's much I can learn from scientists who have lots more experience. On the other hand, I'm not a complete novice, either.

    Just because you claim to be an expert on how scientists are supposed to behave doesn't make you an expert on science education. I still have the right to evaluate your advice to see if it makes sense. That's the way a scientist would approach it.

    You and Chris seems to be saying that we should all do as you say just because you're getting a lot of publicity and because you travel all over the country promoting your views. Guess what? Science doesn't work that way.

    You may have come up with some ideas on how to spin things for public consumption but where you go wrong is in assuming that scientists should behave like politicians when they talk about science. Maybe scientists have higher priorities than successful bamboozling of the general public.

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  8. Is it actually possible to avoid framing? Isn't that rather like claiming you don't have an accent, it's only those silly *other* people that talk funny? As such, the debate over whether you "should" or "shouldn't" use framing isn't just a distraction, it's a logical error. You cannot *not* frame your arguments.

    The key is to be aware of the frame you're using, whether it's one you're morally and scientifically happy with, and whether it's the most effective way to present your views. Note of course that these goals may be mutually exclusive: the most convincing way of presenting your argument may not be morally acceptable to you.

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  9. Peter asks,

    Is it actually possible to avoid framing? Isn't that rather like claiming you don't have an accent, it's only those silly *other* people that talk funny?

    It might be impossible to avoid personal bias and be totally objective about everything. However, I thinks it's the goal of scientists to strive for objectivity whenever they are talking about science to the general public.

    "Framing" seems to be the deliberate and strategic attempt to do the opposite. "Framing" does not seem to encompass the accidental biases that creep into our thoughts in spite of our best attempts to purge them.

    Nisbet and Mooney are asking scientists to modify their language and scientific talks in a way that deliberately skews the presentation in one particular direction. We're supposed to do this in the full knowledge that it distorts the objective evidence—just like the examples shown.

    I suppose you could call the desire to be totally objective a "frame" or some sort but that doesn't seem to be what Nisbet and Mooney are talking about.

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  10. I'm starting to see what the problem is in this issue; having seen the presentations, I think that Matt and Chris are onto something but they are aiming it at the wrong group of professionals.

    I have found that scientists can be excellent presenters of their research and it has awakened in me a renewed interest in the details of science to read the blogs, to go to events and participate in discussions and to read the "raw" uninterpreted papers referred to by scientists who blog on peer-reviewed research.

    I don't find fault with them, nor the need for framing. They need to interpret and present their results and conclusions as they have done for hundreds of years.

    No, the target for the Framing research needs to be the science-aware politicians, public presenters of science and popularizers, including TV, Movie and magazine publishers (excepting actual peer-review journals.)

    I especially see this in the examples that Matt uses. GMO is presented by Greenpeace as bad on any score and it has led European countries to close off all avenues of research. While Greenpeace has scientists working for them, it is their framing group which has had this effect, not necessarily the scientists presenting their research.

    If the love of science as a means of channeling curiosity is to gain footing it is going to have to be through popular media, working with scientists to get the facts straight. If policy is going to be formed based on sound science, it is on the popularizers and the political activists to present it to the decision-makers to present it properly, using framing (if and when demonstrated to work.) If the policies based on science are to be accepted by the voting public, it is up to the science-aware politicians to frame it so that their constituents accept it.

    And Orac, the atheism thing is a sidetrack issue brought by Matt and Chris themselves; it was their opinion. They gave the impression that atheism's damage to science framing has been demonstrated through scientific polling research. It's effect was to unnecessarily antagonize and divide their own target audience, but at least one politician I know has bought into it. Steve Kelley, at the Bell Museum presentation of Science 2.0, got the impression that the atheists are hurting acceptance of science. One wonders how he would have reacted had Matt and Chris made the equally irrelevant point that since many scientists are also homosexual, then the gay scientists shouldn't proclaim their homosexuality.

    I say Matt and Chris should continue working on this, but they need to continue to work on their research before boldly proclaiming results.

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  11. Personally, I don't think it's much different than "spin."

    No, no, no! Nisbet has been very clear about this. When he does it, it's framing. When his opponents do it, it's spin.

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  12. Second, atheism ain't science. I'm perfectly comfortable using rhetorical devices in some venues. It's lot's of fun.

    And, in different genres and contexts, it's appropriate. As someone with a limited knowledge of science, I want my scientific research presented objectively and without any framing. But on more subjective matters, it's more acceptable to use rhetorical strategies. There is a time, place, and genre for everything.

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  13. Larry,

    you do seem to enjoy framing debates on evolution as the "adaptationists" versus the "pluralists" (when really, is there that much of a difference between people who hypothesize "most" versus "some" phenotypic evolution is adaptive?). just an observation. I agree that nisbet-style framing is kind of silly, and would put your "adaptationist v. pluralist" frame in that category.

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  14. p-ter says,

    you do seem to enjoy framing debates on evolution as the "adaptationists" versus the "pluralists" (when really, is there that much of a difference between people who hypothesize "most" versus "some" phenotypic evolution is adaptive?). just an observation. I agree that nisbet-style framing is kind of silly, and would put your "adaptationist v. pluralist" frame in that category.

    Yes, I know you'd like to treat the adapatationist/pluralist controversy as something trivial. That's a common stance among people who lean strongly towards adaptationism.

    I'm reminded of the four stages of acceptance of a new idea as proposed by J.B.S. Haldane.

    I suppose the process of acceptance will pass through the usual four stages: i) this is worthless nonsense; ii) this is an interesting, but perverse, point of view; iii) this is true, but quite unimportant; iv) I always said so.

    P-ter, you are now in stage iii. :-)

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  15. P-ter, you are now in stage iii. :-)

    But by that rule, you are still in stage i or ii when it comes to adaptationism. Just wait. :)

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  16. framing science=converting precise objective information into subjective, emotionally charged and imprecise language

    Framing science means stripping down science until there's nothing meaningful left. Science that was built upon years of careful painstaking investigation in the first place. Kind of a waste of time to build something and then wreck it. If a biased sales pitch is what you're trying to construct, there's no need to start with science anyway. Just decide what you want people to believe and make up the terminology to sell it.

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  17. I'm sorry to hear how widely misunderstood the concept of framing is. I wonder why the concept of framing is so widely misunderstood. Concept of framing... widely misunderstood. Hmm.

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  18. Did I miss something? As someone who does communicate scientific research on a fairly semi-regular basis (to K-12 students and teachers), I am confused by the "need" for renaming scientific concepts or results. The children, teachers and undergrad students communicate my own work and that of our lab and research area seem to understand science once it is explained to them. It is one of my lifelong goals to increase the public awareness of science and its importance to society. I believe educating the public on science methodology, interpretation of results, and broader impacts is preferable to simplifying science to the point making it too trivial.

    It is likely that this "spin" on science is why science has become distrusted as way of understanding the natural world. Using dumbed down metaphors makes it all too easy for the opposition to turn those around in similar language and make the scientist look like the fool.

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  19. Yes, I know you'd like to treat the adapatationist/pluralist controversy as something trivial.

    it is trivial, in the sense that it's resolvable with data. remember my post a while back where I asked for evidence of neutral phenotypic evolution (and proposed a test)?

    or maybe you saw this recent review entitled (I kid you not) "Which evolutionary processes influence natural genetic variation for phenotypic traits?". the authors don't really answer their question, but they do note a couple examples of putatively neutral traits that ended up being under selection and look forward to the day (soon) when it can be resolved.

    if the claim is that most phenotypic evolution is neutral, I'm definitely still at stage i in haldane's classification. but I'm certainly open to progressing :)

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  20. I'm sorry to hear how widely misunderstood the concept of framing is. I wonder why the concept of framing is so widely misunderstood. Concept of framing... widely misunderstood. Hmm.

    Someone needs to do a better job framing framing. Or maybe it's too damn framed already.

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  21. "First, let me say, once again, that I have heard the complaints about "Neville Chamberlain" and I'm trying to avoid that term."

    Good. It's an incredibly stupid analogy. In my not-so-humble opinion, it's one of the dumbest historical analogies I've heard in a long time, and I grate my teeth every time I see it.


    "Second, atheism ain't science. I'm perfectly comfortable using rhetorical devices in some venues. It's lot's of fun."

    Ah, so at least you seem to be admitting you're a big fan of framing nonscience. Now we're getting somewhere.

    Let me give you an example of "framing science" that is something I do every week. A woman comes in with a new diagnosis of breast cancer. I have to explain to her what cancer is, what her prognosis is, and what the recommended treatment regimen is, with the expected outcomes, all of which are determined from science. In other words, I have to synthesize decades of breast cancer research into a 15-30 minute explanation that a woman with no background in science can understand in such a way to give her the tools to make a good choice when there are multiple options to consider.

    Isn't that an example of a good use of "framing"? It's impossible to give a prolonged explanation of what cancer is and the scientific reasons behind why we treat it the way we do in such a setting; so we frame. How is that bad? How could we do otherwise? The main other option, a paternalistic telling the woman that this is the way things are and this is the way you need to be treated, is not so good. I realize that there are a lot of physicians who do that, but I try not to be one of them. If there's a third, fourth, or fifth option, I'm open to suggestion.

    I see a real dichotomy here. To me seems to be the basic scientists who are in more theoretical fields or who are not studying questions with relatively immediate practical application who seem the most hostile to the concept of framing, while those who have to apply science in a practical manner (physicians, engineers, etc.) or who study scientific questions whose results are immediatly applicable to practical problems seem more accepting of the concept (or at least a lot less hostile to it).

    Basically, after writing briefly about the whole issue on my blog, I stopped. I got tired of it. The "anti-framers" like you and PZ are so vociferously and viscerally opposed to it that arguing the point became tiresome to me, with both sides being quite dogmatic (although, quite frankly, I find the anti-framers to be the more dogmatic of the two groups).

    Heck, it's the same reason I only rarely blog about the whole atheism thing anymore. I'm at most an indifferent agnostic, and I find the whole "appeaser" versus "militant" atheist thing to be the sort of argument that never gets resolved but does irritate me.

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