Sunday, April 08, 2007

Framing science

Chris Mooney and Matthew C. Nisbet have written a piece for Science in which they try to convince scientists that they need to reframe their research depending on their audience.

I haven't read the piece (if someone has it, I would appreciate getting a copy of itgot it, and will read it tomorrow), but going from what they have written on their blogs, and from what people have written in response to the piece, the basic message is that it doesn't help using science-speak, when talking with people who don't understand (or beleive) the basics. Instead, research should be cloaked in terms that appeals to the audience. The example given is to talk about "stewardship of the Earth" when talking to Evangelists about global warming.

Greg Laden has a long post about why this is the wrong use of the theory of framing: Framing Science “Paper” Is Deeply Flawed.
Still, even if they are misusing, or misunderstanding, the concept of frames, it's worth to debate if the ideas have merit.

Obviously, as Thorbjörn Larsson has commented on several blogs, the authors are focusing on the US, and ignoring the rest of the world (a point that both Mooney and Nisbet have ignored so far). So this is obviously the "frame" (sorry Greg) we should consider the ideas in.

First of all, I'll say that I think Nisbet and Mooney have some worthwhile ideas, and that they are right that scientists should tailor their presentations to the audience. However, I think they are missing some very important points.

As Abbie, of ERV, points out, it can be very hard to get to the audience in the first place. Even if that happens, then there is the simple problem of explaining science to someone whose entire world view is based upon ideas that flies against everything we know about science.

How do you convince someone of the evidence of global warming or evolution when they believe that the world is only 6000 years old? Much of the evidence for these things is deeply connected to the fact that we know the age of the Earth (or a fitting approximation of it).
When people like Jerry Falwell can cite the Bible as evidence for global warming not being a problem, how can we counter that? If we share the same basic premises as such people, or if we recast the science to reflect those premises, the science becomes meaningless.

And then there is the simple fact that casting science in non-scientific ways will defeat the whole purpose of science. As someone (PZ?) said, we don't want them to believe in evolution (or whatever other subject we're talking about), we want them to understand it. There is a very big difference between those two things.
Of course, we don't want people to understand every nuance of it, but we do want people to understand the basic principles behind the scientific theories, and what it means. Evolution as a concept is quite simple to understand, any child can do it, but as soon as you mix in conflicting notions (like the creation of man), there is a fundamental contradiction between the scientific theory and the basic premises of understanding.

So, what I am leading up to, is the simple fact that while I agree with Mooney and Nisbet that it helps if the scientists can speak the same language as the audience (something that Coturnix goes into in this post: Framing Science - the Dialogue of the Deaf), I think they are missing the point somewhat.

As Buridan explains, scientists shouldn't be used in the role that Mooney and Nisbet seems to envision them in. Instead scientists should do or teach science, and science communicators should try to communicate the science in a way that suits the audience. Science communicators can certainly be scientists, as the many great science bloggers out there show, but the average scientist is not a suitable communicator for the type of audience as Mooney and Nisbet describes (something that Cotournix also gets into in his post).

In other words, as PZ says, it seems a bit strange that it's the scientists that's the target of that Science piece. Instead it should be the science communicators - the science journalists like Chris Mooney or Carl Zimmer. They are the ones who can take science and put it into a framework that suits the audience, not the scientists. And as Carl Zimmer says, he doesn't want the scientists to tell him what his story should be.

Now, stepping out of a US-centric context, and looking at how the US differ from the rest of the Western World, I would say that it seems to me that the US seems to have a higher degree of science illiteracy. So, perhaps the best way of solving the problem is to ensure a better standard of science teaching. This needs to be done to give people a basic understanding of what is and isn't science. This won't do anything for the people too wedded to their non-science worldviews, but it will hopefully help the future average citizen in understanding when something flies in the faces of everything we know about science.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I posted this reply over at Greg Laden's site, though it has yet to be approved as a comment:

Hi Greg,
Thanks for the thoughtful comments over at your blog.

a) The citation to Beardsley is simply to point out that some people in the scientific community have started to think about alternative modes of communication strategy, not to ground the concept/theory of framing.

b) If you are looking for sources on how the fields of communication, political science, and sociology have developed framing as a theory of media influence, see the two citations that we reference in our commentary:

Price, V., Nir, L., & Capella, J.N. (2005). Framing public discussion of gay civil unions. Public Opinion Quarterly, 69, (2), 179-212.

Gamson, WA. and Modigliani, A. (1989). Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach. American Journal of Sociology, 95, 1-37.

Also, see the latest issue of Journal of Communication, the flagship journal in the field. It’s a special issue devoted to framing and media influence. See especially the following overview:

Scheufele, D. A., & Tewksbury, D. (2007). Framing, agenda-setting, and priming: The evolution of three media effects models. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 9-20.

See also this earlier article by Scheufele, possibly the most heavily cited article in the field over the past decade:

Scheufele, D.A. (1999). Framing as a Theory of Media Effects. Journal of Communication 49 (4): 103-22

I would be happy to send you (or others) PDFs of the articles. Part of what you are describing involves a disciplinary turf battle over the use of the social scientific term “framing.” It would be useful to bring together linguists, anthropologists, communication researchers, sociologists, and political scientists to hash out some differing views, though to date, little of this has ever been done.

April 08, 2007 8:58 PM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

Matthew, if you could email me those articles (, I would much appreciate it.

April 08, 2007 9:22 PM  
Blogger normdoering said...

There is an old article on CSICOP's site that might be useful when framing:
"Why Bad Beliefs Don't Die"

I've added a few of my own thoughts here:
My Blog post

Also, as an example of framing, on this blog in another post, it was said; "the lack of faith is not a faith in itself" and that's an example of falling into a frame trap. Faith itself is not the issue, that just means things like trust and loyalty, the issue is what people put faith in and why.

I took Andrew Sullivan to task for framing it that way here:
My other post

April 09, 2007 11:15 PM  
Blogger Trinifar said...

Kristjan: "As someone (PZ?) said, we don't want them to believe in evolution (or whatever other subject we're talking about), we want them to understand it. There is a very big difference between those two things."

When it comes to climate change, population pressure, and growth in comsumption, I don't care if they understand the issues as long as they support the necessary actions to counter the problems.

See here for my lastest thoughts.

April 10, 2007 2:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People sure are spending a lot of time blogging about an article that never even properly defines what a frame is.

Sure, I can get someone else's definition, but how do I know that's the same one Nisbet and Mooney are using?

If I submitted an article on a scientific subject to Science that was as shoddy as theirs, it would never be published -- not in a million years.

So what gives?

April 11, 2007 1:57 AM  
Blogger ERV said...

Anon-- If I submitted an article on a scientific subject to Science that was as shoddy as theirs, it would never be published -- not in a million years.
And they just keep going. Check out their Washington Post article on Chris's blog, and then Matts 'response' to PZ on Pharyngula in the comments.

If we were all in a bar discussing this topic, and Matt said that to me, I would have freaked out. Im furious.

April 15, 2007 6:31 AM  
Blogger karliiiii said...

Matthew, could you email me these article??
Framing as a Theory of Media Effects. Journal of Communication 49 (4): 103-22


October 10, 2007 2:09 AM  

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