“Framing,” as a colleague of mine pointed out, is the term that UC Berkeley Professor of Linguistics George Lakoff uses to urge Democrats that the public will agree with liberal policies if only the policies are described in different terms — “framed” in other words. Politics aside, framing is part and parcel with the condescension of our secular elite that the masses cannot be reasoned with and must therefore be manipulated.
The authors of “Framing Science” (see below), which appeared in Science, are world-renowned scientists and therefore know whereof they speak. Well, not exactly. Matthew Nisbet is a professor of communication and Chris Mooney is a correspondent for the atheist magazine Seed. (Nisbet’s blog is also hosted by Seed.) Nisbet and Mooney are both outspoken defenders of Darwinism and critics of ID — which is no doubt why the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of Science) regards them as qualified to “frame” science.
FRAMING SCIENCE — A Science and Society Policy Forum
Matthew C. Nisbet and Chris Mooney
Science 6 April 2007: Vol. 316. no. 5821, p. 56
Issues at the intersection of science and politics, such as climate change, evolution, and embryonic stem cell research, receive considerable public attention, which is likely to grow, especially in the United States as the 2008 presidential election heats up. Without misrepresenting scientific information on highly contested issues, scientists must learn to actively “frame” information to make it relevant to different audiences. Some in the scientific community have been receptive to this message (1). However, many scientists retain the well-intentioned belief that, if laypeople better understood technical complexities from news coverage, their viewpoints would be more like scientists’, and controversy would subside.
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 (2). Such screening reduces the choices of what to pay attention to and accept as valid (3).
As another example, the scientific theory of evolution has been accepted within the research community for decades. Yet as a debate over “intelligent design” was launched, antievolutionists promoted “scientific uncertainty” and “teach-the-controversy” frames, which scientists countered with science-intensive responses. However, much of the public likely tunes out these technical messages. Instead, frames of “public accountability” that focus on the misuse of tax dollars, “economic development” that highlight the negative repercussions for communities embroiled in evolution battles, and “social progress” that define evolution as a building block for medical advances, are likely to engage broader support.
The evolution issue also highlights another point: Messages must be positive and respect diversity. As the film Flock of Dodos painfully demonstrates, many scientists not only fail to think strategically about how to communicate on evolution, but belittle and insult others’ religious beliefs (8).
On the embryonic stem cell issue, by comparison, patient advocates have delivered a focused message to the public, using “social progress” and “economic competitiveness” frames to argue that the research offers hope for millions of Americans. These messages have helped to drive up public support for funding between 2001 and 2005 (9, 10). However, opponents of increased government funding continue to frame the debate around the moral implications of research, arguing that scientists are “playing God” and destroying human life. Ideology and religion can screen out even dominant positive narratives about science, and reaching some segments of the public will remain a challenge (11).
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.