I’m working on another post, but wanted to mention this while it remains topical:
Science and society bloggers Matthew Nisbet (Framing Science) and Chris Mooney (The Intersection) have published today an article called Framing Science – not to be confused with the blog of the same name. Here is their thesis:
Without misrepresenting scientific information on highly contested issues, scientists must learn to actively “frame” information to make it relevant to different audiences.
There is a general perception that policy-making would be a lot easier if only the uneducated masses would follow the science. This doesn’t happen, because people by and large only listen to that which they want to hear. The expectation is also a tad disingenuous. Not even scientists agree with scientists. Leaving that aside, if you sneak up on people in the right way, you can slip some science into their policy diet and maybe get them to agree with you. This is called ‘framing’.
What are frames? Let’s let Nisbet and Mooney explain:
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.
Stripped to the core, framing science is talking about ancillary issues which give people a reason to accept the conclusions driven by the science. It’s honey for the bitter pill. To successfully persuade people, talk less about the confusing science and more about the surrounding issues with which they can be ensnared.
What are good ancillary issues? The costs of ignoring the science and the benefits of accepting it have the benefit of being rooted in fact. More devious are strategies involving the subtle conscription of unlikely political alliances (finding common ground), or co-opting ad hominem attacks (which set opponents against one another). This is the more controversial approach, because isn’t educative – it’s political, and plays upon those uninformed biases without dismissing their inaccuracies.
The justification for dirty tricks: “The science backs me up, and the opposition is polluting the debate with unsupported fabrications. They need to be countered. And since I’m not generating the science from preconceived notions about what the policy should be, I’m being led by facts and I’m in the right.”
This is very persuasive, but I see it at mostly descriptive. We see framing all of the time. It’s how people talk, outside of the sciences. Most policy discussions do not take place without it. Lawyers, judges, legislators, analysts and communications managers do this. It’s why we see any given issue can be framed in a multitude of ways to connect to different multitudes of people. In the dance of the dialectic, for every frame there is a counter-frame. And to a large degree, they are incommensurable. They simply talk past one another. The trick is to collect enough frames that you convince the majority.
Such are the tactics of persuasion.
So why the fuss? If framing is being done already, what is the utility of scientists framing science? Shouldn’t they stick to telling us about the facts a sizable number of us want to ignore?
Here is the simple justification: Since the politicos are framing their version of the issue, it behooves scientists to frame it as well. They are the ones that know the science best, right? This makes them closer to the issues in play. Right?
So, rather than educating the public about science, we need to school scientists in communication. Like the experts who testify in court, scientists need to play nice with the jury. Create trust, and people will follow.
Is this just a rationalization? Do you think this is really just an argument to lead people by keeping them uninformed? Should we be satisfied that an uneducated public will be manipulated by technocrats to gravitate to familiar frames, vote accordingly, and never be the wiser? I doubt it is meant that way, but it is an example of the framing technique we are talking about.
I would be satisfied if scientists met their duty to bring their science to the table – and then make it both comprehensible and informative. But they shouldn’t frame their science unless they have relevant expertise when it comes to the ancillary issues under discussion. With this in mind, scientists should forge interdisciplinary connections with people whose job is it to know how to think about those issues: philosophers, legal scholars, and economists, among others.