Monday, April 30, 2007

Thinking about Framing Science? Don't.

A little late, but I thought I'd comment on the Nisbet and Mooney article called "Framing Science" which appeared in the April 6th edition of Science magazine. In case you missed it, this set off a minor storm in the science blogosphere. A long summary is here (see updates at the bottom)

After reading the article and some of the follow up discussion, I'd say I agree with the take at Mixing Memory and in particular the post by Greg Laden that this was a botched job.

I notice that there's been little crossover from the science blogs to the lefty blogs where frames were first discussed about three years ago. My first introduction was this post on DailyKos.

First, Nisbet and Mooney misunderstand the word "frame" which, in Lakoff's work, is more of a noun then a verb. Frames are something people have hard-wired in their brain and the politicians job is to invoke one or the other. Its a not a processor you run your presentation through.

Nisbet and Mooney seem inspired by a Pew center poll which showed lack of interest/understanding on global warming. However this poll was taken in January of 2007, before the 3 month long IPCC press barrage. As more recent polls discussed below show, the AR4 reports have had a major effect on the public understanding and acceptance of global warming, without any "framing".

The article is mostly about examples, some accurate, some not, of framing. They actually don't say much about how to do a better job of "framing science" or what that even means. Here's what comes closest to a proposal in their text:
Without misrepresenting scientific information on highly contested issues, scientists must learn to actively “frame” information to make it relevant to different audiences.

I disagree. The key phrase in the above is "frame information". Scientists deal in facts. Verifiable facts. And we should describe them using the words we know when asked. A Princeton professor had a recent book out called "On Bullshit" which talked about how pervasive it is on our culture. I think people are exhausted by this and would like a break. If a scientist finds him or herself in front of an audience, its probably because the audience wants to hear about some science, some facts. To "Frame information" sound like "turn facts into bullshit" "wrap facts in a layer of bullshit" to me. Scientists are one of the few groups who can be counted on to not bullshit, at least when asked about actual science. We give that up at our peril and the peril of the scientific enterprise itself.

There are two problems here: communicating science and communicating policy. Communicating science should follow the simple rules laid out by Mixing Memory: be nice, know your audience and realize that words have power (the take-home message from the theory of frames.) I would add never refuse to answer a science question. If it requires more detail, go in to the detail. Hide nothing. Let the audience tell you when to stop.

Now if you're a political leader trying to persuade the public to some action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and/or energy use, then you have to worry about the words you use and what frames they evoke.

But for scientists communicating the science of our climate system, just stick to the facts. Thats what people want from you. Reversing the global warming trend will require a level of world-wide cooperation unprecedented in human history. Its only fitting that people have an unprecedented understanding of the science behind it. There's no room for "framing" in that undertaking.

Update (5/2/07): I think this last paragraph is where I've been misunderstood. Although I said "just stick to the facts", note that its "when communicating science." And I didn't mean you had to do it in a monotone or that you should use the figures right out of your papers. If you have other things to communicate, like how to solve the problem, why its a problem worth solving, then you can and should use all the persuasive skills you can muster. And facts.


Unknown said...

Bob, I agree that sticking to the facts is one of the scientist's key tools, but I'd take issue with the idea that 'framing' needs to be bullshitting.

My interpretation was that what N & M were talking about was 'moving the goalposts'; instead of having a stand-up with some assertive polemical skeptic, move the posts and talk about what matters. In this sense, 'framing' means dumping the BS, not creating more.

But maybe I should RTFR...


Bora Zivkovic said...

Back when Kos wrote that post I screamed bloody murder on my blog because Kos totally did not understand what framing is all about. Feel free to search for "Lakoff" or "framing" on my blog or go to my Archives and check the "Ideology" category.

Unknown said...

Hi Fergus,

"Moving the goalposts" is a good concept but that's what you do with policy issues. You want to move the discussion of what's possible from, for example, modest increases in CAFE standards to banning incandescent bulbs. For scientific facts? I don't see what it means.


Anonymous said...

Rob: I don't think we can move the goalposts as far as the facts are concerned; they are what they are, regardless. This is about how to control/manage/work in discussion or debate. The facts are on the side of the majority, in this case. Get a denialist or sceptic to talk about the facts, not opinions or attitudes. When someone says 'but it's all speculation...' you counter with 'Thermometers do not have opinions; that it is warming, on average, is a fact...; do you deny this?' When they say 'it's a conspiracy...', you respond 'conspiracies can only lie; they can't change the facts; you can't invent the last twenty years of global temperatures...'
In other words, talk about what you want to talk about, not what they want you to talk about.
I apologise if the examples are poor; they're off the top of my head, but I hope my meaning is clear.

Michael Tobis said...

Hi Rob!

Coturnix, who pops up here, with whom I have some disagreements, (I think he often violates his own advice) is doing a remarkable job of tracking the framing discussions!

I do think there is a nomenclature issue. There is Lakoff's meaning of "framing", which is moral context, and the "Overton window", which is the social perception of acceptable opinions. As Eli Rabbett has been arguing for a long while, as long as Lindzen is considered acceptable for quotation in mass media and Lovelock isn't, we have a very serious problem.

Both issues are sometimes called "framing", and they are similar enough that it muddles the discussion a bit.

The idea that scientists should stick to facts and ignore polemics doesn't work. I think this is what N&M are saying, and it speaks to both definitions of framing.

Which facts you choose to speak depend on the social context. As experts, we have more facts than the public cares to absorb.

If we remain passive, while polemicists selling nonsense remain active, they choose the questions that people think about. That is what has been happening, and that is ultimately why the policy response in democracies continues to show very little sign of competence.

We mustn't lie, but it is our responsibility to be more than passive instruments, extensions to Google. We must choose which facts are most important, and emphasize them.

As long as we let ourselves be trapped into spending our time dismissing denialist noise, we come off as negative, arrogant, clannish and finnicky. Worse, we fail to communicate the broad strokes of our predicament.

We have to do a better job setting the terms of the discussion. You can see a recent effort of mine in this direction here.

I don't see what's so bad about not letting irresponsible people control the terms of the discussion. Passive response, science as service rather than as active participant, used to work but it has been subverted by organized malice. We now have an obligation to participate in identifying the right questions as well as answering them.

It's a change, but it's not lying. It's just taking note that there are some effective liars arrayed against us.

Anonymous said...

Lakoff is frequently invoked and rarely understood. The point is that all human communication always and already takes place within a set of frames. There is no such thing as "just the facts," completely outside of frames. Indeed, the enlightenment attachment to "just the facts" is itself a frame -- not a very effective one, not a widely shared one, not one that effectively educates or changes minds. Stick to it if you want, but don't pretend that you're not already involved in framing. To communicate with humans is to work within frames. That's the whole point.

Anonymous said...

Hello Rob,

My post describes the way some people respond to Professional Skeptics' points, and suggests what scientists can do to further our common cause to combat climate change.

My own career has required me to bridge the gap between design engineers (which I am) and members of the public (which I am also) and this experience is what I base my response on, rather than any academic papers … which, in any case, I have never read ;-)

In summary, I agree with fergus that framing is not necessarily a bad thing; I agree with michael that scientists need to participate, actively highlighting the significant facts to prevent information being controlled and insignificant facts or untruths promoted by special interests; and I agree with david that most communication involves framing.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Google Spiked Online for today's main story for latest context. It shows why michael's active approach is absolutely necessary, on condition that action is taken by those who are aware of the reaction it triggers. This is a case to track.

Unknown said...

Hi Fergus,

Your examples make perfect sense to me. That changing-the-subject, putting up straw-man, making outrageous accusations style of "debate" the denialists engage should most definitely be resisted and countered at every opportunity. I think we're actually in agreement: you can't move the goalposts on facts.

My question to the group here is: what exactly do Mooney and Nisbet mean by "framing information"? If I want to show the measurement of CO2 increase in the atmosphere, how do I do this in a "framing" way?


Unknown said...

Hi Michael,

I didn't mean to imply that scientists should remain passive in the face of polemics and other nastiness from the deniers. I agree with the examples Fergus gave. But I don't see how doing that constitutes "framing information". That's just good basic debating skill.

I agree we need to change the "frame" from which discussion of solutions is undertaken. That's one point I got out of Lakoff's "Don't think of an elephant" book: that if you play by their rules, use their language, you've already lost. But notice we're again in the policy realm. Not the "is the earth warming or not" realm.

Mooney and Nisbet seem to be saying that better framing of information will somehow make more Republicans accept that human activity is responsible for global warming (a fact). I'm still waiting for an example of what might do that.

If all M&N are saying is that policy does not flow automatically from scientific conclusions, all I can say is "duh". Lakoff also made that point and so could anyone familiar with recent history.

So we're going to have a debate on what to do about global warming. That needs to be framed correctly. No argument from me there. But as for the debate about is global warming real? Only facts can answer that.

Michael Tobis said...

Facts are insufficient, unfortunately. If the network of trust between genuine experts and the public had not been frayed so badly, (and so deliberately) it would be.

"When deep quality metrics are unavailable, customers will base their decisions on shallow metrics instead". See this posting of mine and the links therein.

Unknown said...

Hi Michael,

Please stop characterizing my post as saying "use facts only". I know facts aren't enough. I know presentation is important. You can do both.

What I still don't know is what M&N meant by "frame information". Weather you're using Overton or Lakoff, framing emphasizes word choice. In further reading of M&N, they still haven't suggested how scientists should use *words* differently. They keep talking about picking a better messenger and other things that have nothing to do with the words we use to describe the science--the information. Words we've spent years developing.

To (hopefully) conclude, I probably took M&N too literally. When they said "frame information" they weren't saying we should find other language to describe what we know, they were just saying to pick and choose and be a bit more media savvy. I guess there are some academics way up in an ivory tower somewhere who need to be told that the public doesn't carefully weigh all the facts and then decide what to support; that there are signifiers like a suit and a good haircut that convey "authority" and maybe you should get one or both before going out in public. In that case: Go M&N! Go! (but that ain't framing.)

Unknown said...

Intel: You have some good advice in your blog post. But I would characterize it as basic public speaking skills in our early 21st century society. Still looking for that "frame information" example.

To David: I remember Lakoff saying that (don't have the book with me right now). I'm not saying that statements of fact don't evoke any frames as they're being composed or spoken. What I was complaining about was that M&N seemed to be suggesting we need to find new ways to say "carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere has increased in the past 100 years due to human activity". But, as I said above, I think I took them to literally.

To all: I've updated my original blog entry to hopefully clarify what I meant by "just the facts".

Anonymous said...

Hi Rob,

Basic public speaking is not all I am basing my blog post on. The difference between explaining the inner workings of a microprocessor to design engineers who need to know all the technical details, versus briefing investors on company strategy, versus demonstrating equipment to engineers whose mother tongue is not English is part of my background. Facts are fundamental, but need to be framed to be effective for an audience and to fit a company's agenda. This works best when the business strategy is well-defined and there are compelling reasons to act that can be stated clearly and followed easily. The overall agenda drives the framing at various levels and is adapted for different audiences to make it compelling for them, which means they feel the need to act upon the information given.

Nisbet does not address the frames within frames within frames that I see, and I am not a politician, but I am aware that there are levels of dependency within this framing topic. I don't think it is articulated so that scientists can use it right off the bat. I consider the framing requirement of scientists to be a tall order coming from a political scientist.

Where I see the scientists' key role is in bolstering the voices of non-scientists in regard to the most significant facts, and holding back on the urge to communicate extra (less significant) details in response to contrarians' challenges. I have to rein myself in ALL the time. My temptation is to explain things to the nth degree in several different ways to make sure the message is received. Unfortunately, the main groups of people who really seem to appreciate this level of detail are those for whom a decent cup of coffee and a well-written White Paper would do just as well. The people who tune out details are the ones for whom more framing is necessary.

Nisbet says scientists need to learn frames. On the other hand, I think journalists need to learn to understand science better so they can frame the issues for their audiences. That is their role, not yours. However, since they are not doing it, it does no harm for those scientists who are interested in learning to frame issues to go ahead and try, preferably with the support of those who can spread the word via the mass media. In other words, a collaborative approach between scientists and correspondents/journalists is what I prefer, whereas Nisbet & Mooney seem to call for scientists to morph into framers. That transformation of scientists' roles is not the whole solution, and it places an unfair burden on scientists, in my humble opinion. It would be better for non-scientists to offer to work with scientists in a win-win model.

The best place a non-scientist can start to frame the issues without any direct external guidance is by taking each bold paragraph from the three latest IPCC SPMs. Then, if we define the initial goal for combatting climate change to be to make people feel "there is a problem, but it is balanced with hope", and "we are all in this together and the sooner we act the better", then work out how to express issues within that strategic frame for a given audience. If you take this first WGI SPM quote for example:

"Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre - industrial values determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years (see Figure SPM - 1)."

One way to make that point to members of the public is to make an improved version of Fig. SPM-1 ubiquitous. People need to see it everywhere—on public transport, billboards, newspapers, etc.—and have a call to action that fits the overall strategic frame of "hope, collaboration and urgency" accompanying the graphic along these lines:

"Ice records over millennia prove the Industrial Age has changed our atmosphere for the worse. Working together, we can reduce the impact. You can't change history, but the future depends on what you do. Now."

This can then be backed up by scientists who know the reference and the communication strategy and can provide relevant quotes of their own to reporters who should have access to Fig. SPM-1 and can explain it to their audiences ad infinitum and can direct people to suitable actions (or resources) for immediate effect.

I expect most scientists would consider framing as just another way of dumbing down information. I agree that is effectively what has to happen, though points can be simplified and still be true, as opposed to being replaced with outright lies. Unfortunately, most people cannot handle the information if it is not dumbed down. With sceptics offering a dumbed-down (false) statement to compete with a more accurate scientific statement, the public naturally latch on to the one which speaks to them at their level of sophistication, regardless of whether it is true or not.