Framing Science?

Via the Framing Science blog, a success story about getting things done by properly “framing” the science behind the policy:

The unprecedented success at translating expert recommendations into a policy victory is in no small part due to the strategic framing of the initiative. The complexities of this bill were put in terms that policymakers and the public could understand, value, and support. As one backer described: “We quit talking about the virtues of science in the abstract and started talking about its impact on jobs. Everybody understands jobs.”

While this is good news, it illustrates a problem I have with the whole “framing” debate.
The problem I have with “framing,” as an alternative approach to reaching the general public, is that it overlaps a couple of concepts that don’t really belong together: “framing” versus “delivery.” The whole framing debate originally arose out of the observation that some groups were proving to be better at convincing people than other groups who actually had more facts in their favor. “How can we be right,” the latter groups wondered, “and still be losing the debates?” The answer, they concluded, was that the winning groups were better at “framing” their presentation. The implication, in the eyes of some, is that the reality-based groups should give some thought to framing as well.

Framing, however, is not the same as “delivery.” The pro-framing people are generally talking in terms of framing, but their recommendations have more to do with delivery than with the techniques the other guys are actually using to win arguments.  As a result, while the pro-framing folks have some good points, the whole effort runs the risk of misunderstanding what it is that the other guys are really pulling. As good as their ideas are, in the end I expect them to end up back where they started: wondering why the other guys are still winning.

“Delivery,” for the record, is the art of tailoring your presentation so that it is more easily and readily grasped by your target audience. This includes intangibles like showing up neatly dressed and well groomed, as well as more obvious aspects like phrasing your presentation in layman’s terms. This is a good thing, and it’s true that the scientific community has been known to score poorly on their delivery. In the space-race mentality of the 1960’s, the public was willing to overlook a certain amount of scientific eccentricity and jargon, but those golden years are gone. Today’s scientist needs to listen to the recommendations of the PR/marketing types when it comes to how they present their findings, especially when discussing topics like environmentalism and science education.

But framing–as practiced by the other guys–is something entirely different. For example, it has been suggested that scientists (and/or atheists) ought to speak more respectfully of other people’s religious beliefs, in the interests of “framing” their case more effectively. That sounds nice, but that’s not framing. Listen to pundits like O’Reilly or Hannity some time. Listen to the Pat Robertsons and James Dobsons of the conservative framing master class. Are they famous for how mildly and tolerantly they speak of liberals, atheists, and others whose views are different from theirs?

Real framing, the kind of framing that attracted our attention in the first place, is not the sort of practice that harmonizes well with things like personal integrity, tolerance, and respect for the truth. It’s manipulative, deceitful, underhanded, and totally amoral. And these are the characteristics that are giving it the successes that make the rest of us want to jump on the bandwagon and do a little framing ourselves. Only in most cases, we’re not really willing to put ourselves on that level. There’s something distasteful about that kind of cynical duplicity, and rightly so. Honest and enlightened people shouldn’t stoop to this kind of tactic.

So here’s my caveat: practice what you call “framing” if you want to, but be warned that simply dressing nice and smiling aren’t going to give you the results that the real gurus of framing are getting. We can get similar results, but it’s going to take us a lot more work. “Framing,” as practiced by the good guys, isn’t going to be a magic bullet.

One Response to “Framing Science?”

  1. Evangelical Realism PZ in trouble again « Says:

    […] I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek here.  As I’ve said before, I think that there’s a certain value in polishing one’s delivery of scientific […]

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