Fear of the frame

After all the chatter that’s been going on throughout ScienceBlogs about Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney‘s editorial, Framing Science, published in Science on Friday, I almost thought that there was nothing really left for me to say. Of course, regular readers of this blog know that there’s rarely an issue that’s been so thoroughly picked over by my fellow science bloggers (ScienceBloggers and otherwise) that I can’t find something else to say about it. And I’ll do it by, in effect, “framing” the issue in perhaps a slightly different way than Mooney and Nisbet did. But first, let’s examine a bit what they actually said:

In reality, citizens do not use the news media as scientists assume. Research shows that people are rarely well enough informed or motivated to weigh competing ideas and arguments. Faced with a daily torrent of news, citizens use their value predispositions (such as political or religious beliefs) as perceptual screens, selecting news outlets and Web sites whose outlooks match their own. Such screening reduces the choices of what to pay attention to and accept as valid.

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.

After reading the entire article, I have to ask why some reaction has been relatively hostile. Indeed, Larry Moran and P. Z. Myers, and ERV, in particular, have been particularly hostile to the concept. Here’s the reason I ask: Scientists already “frame” their arguments and work each and every day. They just don’t do it for the audience that Mooney and Nisbet are talking about, the public. They do it for their fellow scientists, to persuade them that their research is correct. We scientists already do on an esoteric level exactly what Mooney and Nisbet argue that we should do on the level of communication with the public. P.Z. is correct in one way: The most successful scientists are often also the best communicators. It’s just that they’re communicating to other scientists. Is it really so much of a stretch to try to get them to communicate more successfully with nonscientists? I think not.

If you’re a scientist, consider this. What is the very first thing you do when you sit down to write a scientific paper to submit to a peer-reviewed journal? Well, if you’re like me, you gather together your data and organize it into a number of figures that you will include in your paper. But how do you organize the data? Again, if you’re like me, you organize it around a “story,” a narrative that is designed to make sense of the data for scientists who might not necessarily be in your discipline or even familiar with the scientific question that you’re discussing. I learned this from my Ph.D. thesis advisor. Indeed, one of the most important things that he taught me was how to communicate my findings. I always wanted to include more and more detailed data; he showed me the value of the “data not shown” phrase in a paper at strategic points, telling me that, if the reviewers ask for it we can provide the data that wasn’t shown, but putting it in otherwise just muddies up the message.

Now, if you’re a scientist, consider a scientific talk. What’s the first thing you do when preparing the talk? Well, the first thing you probably do is to decide on the narrative and then make your slides and pick your data to fit into the narrative that you’re trying to communicate, taking into account who your audience is. Is it a group of scientists of mixed backgrounds? Is it a bunch of scientists who are experts in your field too and will thus be more demanding? As my thesis advisor told me again and again: Paint with broad strokes. The worst talks tend to bury the listener in piles of data. It’s all very impressive as far as quantity, but it won’t necessarily convince them that you are correct. The best talks tend to stick to one or two key points (certainly no more than three in an hour-long talk), paint the big picture first, and then zero in only on as much detail and data as is necessary to convince the audience, depending again on who the audience is.

Finally, consider the ultimate case, something I’m gearing up to do for May and June deadlines for the Department of Defense, which, oddly enough, funds a fair amount of breast cancer research: Writing a research grant. This is where, sadly, scientists have to be at their most persuasive, because they’re asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund their research. Time and time again, I’ve heard that the success of a grant usually rises or falls on the abstract and the one page summary of the specific aims (i.e., the specific questions that the research project in the grant proposes to answer). Now that I will have been on an NIH study section for a full year as of June, I know that this is true. The abstract and the specific aims page set the narrative and serve to get the reviewer interested in reading the rest of the grant. A good abstract and specific aims page can’t save a bad grant, but a bad abstract and specific aims page can sink a good one, or at least hurt its final priority score.

How is this any different from “framing” an argument for a mass audience or for the lay public? It’s not, really, other than in degree and in how many constraints are placed on us by the media as opposed to scientific venues. P.Z. may say that most scientists are “awesome” at communicating, but I have to disagree. He must hang out with a different bunch of scientists than I do. (Either that, or physician-scientists are a particularly boring and uncommunicative lot compared to hardcore basic scientists, which is a distinct possibility.) Most scientists are average at best at communicating, even with their fellow scientists. Just think about how many scientific talks at various conferences are not sleep-inducing compared to the ones that truly engage you, and you’ll see what I mean. Just think of how few scientific papers are a joy to read, rather than chore to slog through, and you’ll see what I mean. Not unexpectedly, most scientists tend to be even worse at communicating with nonscientists. The reason for this, I suspect, is that communication is generally not a priority in science education.

As Bora put it in an excellent (and Orac-length post):

Truth is not sufficient. Dry data will not sway non-scientists. Their eyes will glaze over and they’ll move on. Reserve your precision for your papers, posters and talks. You can talk like that to your fellow scientists. But as soon as you leave that narrow circle you will have to adjust your language.

I’d go further than that. I’d say that truth is not sufficient even when scientists are talking to other scientists. It’s how I as a scientist “frame” my data and argument, the narrative that, hopefully, flows from my data with my help, that convinces other scientists. There’s a reason we usually don’t show the minutiae of, for example, how we calculate our DNA concentrations, how we assay our protein purity. If it’s not necessary to convince our audience, we don’t show it, but we have it in reserve in case anyone (a reviewer of a scientific paper, for instance, or an audience member at a scientific talk) asks for it. The better the “frame” around the data and argument, the more likely it is that a scientist will be able to convince his fellow scientists of the correctness of his hypotheses.

This brings us to the media and the issue that Mooney and Nisbet are discussing. P.Z. correctly rails against the “sound-bite” mentality of the media, which make getting a scientific message across to the public accurately very difficult, but such complaints do not really help scientists figure out how to get their message across now. For better or for worse, this is the way the media is now, and it’s unlikely to change any time soon. “Framing” issues for fellow scientists is one thing. The data are still presented, and science is still discussed in a forum that is (usually) not tainted by partisan politics. But going into the political arena is a different issue. As Nisbet and Mooney point out, “facts will be repeatedly misapplied and twisted in direct proportion to their relevance to the political debate and decision-making.” And, the sad facts are, as P.Z., Bora, and others have pointed out, that the public is depressingly scientifically illiterate. It would be a fantastic world indeed if the vast majority of the public were scientifically literate and well-informed, but they aren’t, and changing that is a long-term problem that does not help scientists in the short term. Which is why Mooney and Nisbet have a point when they say:

Some readers may consider our proposals too Orwellian, preferring to safely stick to the facts. Yet scientists must realize that facts will be repeatedly misapplied and twisted in direct proportion to their relevance to the political debate and decision-making. In short, as unnatural as it might feel, in many cases, scientists should strategically avoid emphasizing the technical details of science when trying to defend it.

Bora, I think, made a somewhat better analogy:

Actually, much of science is really taught similarly. Not starting with religiously-based nonsense and gradually shedding it, but starting with oversimplified versions of science and gradually shedding the errors. We necessarily lie to 1st-graders about evolution (or anything else in science for that matter), because basics are oversimplifications that are factually wrong but are neccessary to learn in order to be able to understand it and be able to move on to more sophisticated versions later. Only in graduate school, with full immersion into the literature, one sheds the last errors in one’s chosen area of one’s chosen field of one’s chosen scientific discipline.

Even scientists adhere to semi-erroneous ideas outside of their narrow area of expertise. There is no way anyone can know everything absolutely correctly about all of science. And non-scientists should not be expected to know it either. So teaching them with that goal in mind is doomed to failure. And the way we tend to teach is just like that – trying to teach the best available knowledge of our own disciplines to the unprepared minds – of course they switch off and get easily swayed by the sweet-talking preachers.

But what about “shattering the frame,” as P.Z. puts it? Is there a role for that? The glib answer is that “shattering the frame” is just another kind of frame, but let me come back to politics again, which is what this whole discussion is really about: the politics of science-based policy issues. In politics, there are at least two distinct sets of skills, which are often not possessed by the same people. There are those who are able to throw out the red meat to their base, to fire up the base to support the party and “storm the barricades,” so to speak, against the “enemy,” and there are those who know how to negotiate and persuade in order to get things done. The former group spews fire against the “enemy”; the latter group does deals with him in order to advance their goals as much as is realistically possible, at the price of usually being forced to give something up in return. They know that they can’t get anywhere by attacking their opponent’s most cherished beliefs and therefore don’t do so, even if they think their opponent’s most cherished beliefs, be they religious, political, or whatever, are a load of fetid dingo’s kidneys.

That ‘s politics in a nutshell. Both types of “politicians” play a role, and both serve a purpose in advancing a party’s cause, and most politicians fall somewhere in a spectrum between the two extremes. Rare is the politician who can do both, and they tend to be the most successful. If we liken the two types of politicians to the two types of scientists, we also have to realize that long-term transformational change that firebrands like P.Z. and Larry advocate is not likely to occur in our lifetimes. Furthermore, for many of the scientific-based policy decisions that need to be made we do not have the luxury of waiting until it does. Decisions have to be made soon, and policies drafted. Attacking the barricades by attacking the most cherished beliefs of opponents of good science may be very satisfying and may advance long-term goals, but in the short term it can be very counterproductive to the goal of educating the public and helping people to see the scientific issues involved. It can also lead to some rather nasty battles between people who have in essence the same goals, such as the whole “Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists” (i.e., “appeasers” like, supposedly, Neville Chamberlain, as opposed to Winston Churchill, possibly the single worst historical analogy I’ve ever heard and almost certainly the absolute dumbest thing that Richard Dawkins has ever written) kerfluffle that erupted around Thanksgiving right here on ScienceBlogs, to much heat and very little light. It is a battle that will almost certainly recur, with the same result. It’s also a good reminder that science itself, being a human activity, is not immune to the influence of politics and ideology, and that scientists themselves have their own ideological axes to grind which (we hope) are related to good science most of the time, but are not always.

The bottom line is that the battle for the public’s soul does, at least in the short term, come down to a matter of framing the science in such a way that (1) the public can understand it and (2) that it appeals to shared values without gratuitiously or needlessly insulting those who are ignorant of the science or ideologically opposed to it. Like it or not, politics is not the rarified world of science and scientific discussions. It’s also rather odd that one of the more vociferous detractors of Nisbet and Mooney’s concept, Larry Moran, states:

I think I’ll try and emulate Isaac Asimov, Dick Lewontin, Carl Sagan, Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Peter Medawar, Niles Eldredge, and Stephen Jay Gould. They’re scientists who, in my opinion, communicate pretty effectively and they attracted lots of readers. They didn’t have to disguise their atheism or their liberalism in order to get a point across. I don’t think they took lessons on “framing.”

Actually, this is a bit of a straw man argument. Neither Mooney nor Nisbet, as far as I can tell, has said that scientists have to “disguise their atheism or liberalism” to get their message across. Rather, they are saying that scientists don’t get very far insulting their audience or burying them with data that they don’t have the background to understand. It also neglects that not all scientists are atheists or liberals, as hard as that is to believe and as much as Larry might wish that to be so. Finally, let’s look at a couple of his examples. Isaac Asimov did exactly the sort of simplification and framing necessary to explain the science to a lay audience. As for Carl Sagan, he understood precisely that when, for example, explaining evolution, you do not persuade anyone by attacking their religion first. Look at The Demon-Haunted World, his last book, for example. He goes out of his way not to disparage the religious, even while attacking certain forms of religious pseudoscience in no uncertain terms, particularly creationism. Look at Cosmos. What is Cosmos but framing science in a way designed to sell it to the public, with gee-whiz special effects that were state-of-the-art at the time? Indeed, Sagan took a fair amount of heat for his efforts at popularizing science, as I recall.

The bottom line is that “framing” is nothing more than understanding your audience’s knowledge and values and tailoring your message to it to communicate as effectively as possible. Scientists should not fear the frame. After all, they frame their message all the time in professional venues and settings, whether they recognize it or not. The differences between the framing that scientists do on a daily basis and the framing that Mooney and Nisbet are in essence a matter of degree, and it is not necessary to “lie to the public,” as Larry Moran puts it, to accomplish this. Simplification to allow an audience uneducated in mathematics and even high school level science is not necessarily lying, if done correctly so that the essence of the scientific concept to be grasped shines through. The purpose is the same (to get our message across to an audience), but to reach the public it’s necessary to go further at it than scientists are used to, and that’s where the discomfort seems to lie.