Framing ‘framing’

As you may have noticed, there is a vigorous debate going on in the blogosphere about framing science (all the links to all the relevant posts can be found if you click on that link).
For the uninitiated, this may look as a big dust-up and bar-brawl, but that is how blogosphere works, ya know, thesis + anthithesis and all. Dialectics, that’s the word I was looking for! Does not mean that Larry Moran and I will refuse to have a beer with each other when he comes to Chapel Hill next time!
The sheer quantity of responses, the passion, and the high quality of most posts, thoughtful and carefully written (even those I personally disagree with) demonstrates that this is a very important topic to scientists and people interested in science. I am really glad that the discussion has started.
The blog posts, as well as numerous comments, are, in themselves data. They show how people interested in science think about the concept of science communication. I am assuming that Matt and Chris will delve deep into them and use these data in further work.
The debate also shows that many people are unclear as to what exactly “framing” is. It also shows that the topic is broad and multi-faceted, as different commenters homed in on different aspects of the idea. This resulted in some misunderstandings, of course, but also brought to light the weaknesses of the ways framing is explained to people unfamiliar with the concept.
In my post (linked above), I tried to divide the concept into two broad categories: short-term and long-term.
The short-term framing operates at the time-scale of seconds. Its goal is to persuade. To make the listener believe that what you say is true.
The long-term framing operates at the time-scale of decades. Its goal is to make new generations much easier to persuade, and once they are persuaded, much easier to teach and inform about science.
A sub-set of responses also deals with the question – who should do it: all scientists, some scientists, or professional communicators (e.g., journalists, writers, pundits). I hope that my post also makes it clear that everyone is a part of the ecosystem, playing a role in the division of labor that most fits his/her temperament and inclination.
The debate also reveals something new to me: an automatic negative emotional reaction to the very word “frame”. This was something new to me and, as it baffled me, I tried to think about the reasons for this. I may be wrong, but I think I figured it out – I am not a native English speaker. Let me clarify….
I grew up speaking Serbo-Croatian. At about the age of 5 I started learning English, first at home, later in school, at a Language Institute and a few summer schools in the UK. For many, many years, the only meaning of “frame” for me was the thing you place a picture in. A picture frame can be a piece of art in itself. A well-chosen frame accentuates the art of the picture. The very act of framing a picture means that you have taken it out of a binder hidden in some dusty corner and are going to display it on a wall. All very positive meanings of the word “to frame”.
I saw “Who framed Roger Rabbit” in translation. I guess I knew the original title and had it stored somewhere in the back of my mind but never thought about what it means.
Then, I started reading Lakoff and other literature on framing. There, I understood the word to be a technical term, pretty neutral, or even a little on the positive side: about how to communicate well.
So, I was taken aback when I saw people responding – really, really fast – to the notion of framing by equating it to some very negative connotations: spin, lying, propaganda, selling-out, washing-down, branding, marketing, etc. Concepts that do not have much really to do with framing and some are actually opposite to it. Why does the word “frame” elicit negative frames?
Scientists are generally pretty intelligent and well educated people, people who could make a killing in a business world. Yet, we chose to forgo the money and fame and pursue the Truth instead. Instead of yachts, Irish Wolfhounds, racehorses, trophy-wives, champaigne baths, caviar dinners and personal jets, we’d rather spend our time in the lab, the field and in the classroom. We hate dealing with bureacracies of all kinds, be it the University administration or funding agencies.
Perhaps we are congenitally ‘allergic’ to the notion of selling. Selling is dirty. Marketing what you are selling is even dirtier. Something to be left to less-than-honest people in the world.
I do not know the backgrounds of all the bloggers who chimed in on this topic, even less the commenters, but I will speculate that people most resistant to the idea of framing are: a) scientists, b) native English speakers, c) quite Left on the political/ideological continuum and d) people who have not spent much time immersed in the cog-sci literature on framing (which may inncoulate one from feeling the negative emotions towards the word). All four. I am a) and c) and that is not enough for me to be hostile to the idea.
Is that true?
Tell me, if your reaction to the word “frame” is negative, why is that so? What, as a non-native English speaker, am I missing?
Framing Science – the Dialogue of the Deaf
Framing ‘framing’
Did I frame that wrong?
Framing and Truth
Just a quick update on ‘framing science’
Joshua Bell and Framing Science
Framers are NOT appeasers!
Framing Politics (based on science, of course)
Everybody Must Get Framed

21 responses to “Framing ‘framing’

  1. Wow, this is really going meta-…
    But you may have a point – perhaps the use of “framing” as in “framing somebody for a crime” is the first thing that springs to mind, which would suggest that the frame has a contrived connection with its occupant, or taints it somehow.
    (In contrast, I think that for most people, a picture frame is a somewhat neutral object)
    Framers badly frame framing. If my irony meter had survived Dembski’s contribution, the needle might be wobbling a bit…

  2. My first reaction to the word is not negative. It’s my second, third, and fourth reactions that are the problem.
    I’m just not finding enough substance in the concept to help me understand what it is or how to use it. So far, it looks like a useful word to browbeat people with when you say things they disagree with — the concern trolls will find it very handy.

  3. Bora,
    Thanks again for the continued synthesis posts.
    On clarifying the concept, you might find interesting this recent short book chapter by Dietram Scheufele at UWisc-Madison, applying as we do framing as a theory of media influence to science controversies.

  4. Jonathan Vause

    Only b and d, and I don’t think my reaction has much to do with the word we’re using. The possibility that science would lose its reputation (assuming it still has it) for, as you put it, objectively seeking Truth is what immediately jarred with me. Even if framing doesn’t go as far as spinning, that’s exactly what opponents will claim it is – and, because many of them are wilfully perverse, they’ll always be better at it than we are. With a few rare exceptions, scientists will never be much good at knowing how to sell new ideas to the masses, because they simply don’t think in same way.

  5. I think majority of people responding either read only the Science article or, worse, only the press release (and I bet some commenters read neither – just the blog posts they commented on). The article is, being published in “Science”, necessarily short and cannot explain the concept in any detail.
    The same problem was with Lakoff’s “Elephant” which was too slim to explain the concepts and the Leftosphere uniformly miunderstood it. Reading “Moral Politics” at least, and also hopefully some papers, helps one grok it.
    It was so misunderstood that Lefty bloggers thought that they were supposed to talk about the Strict Father and Nurturant Parent TO THEIR audiences. No, those are concepts one needs to keep in minds when crafting the message, not something you are ever supposed to utter yourself.
    Similarly, a lot of the discussion over the past few days appeared to be a mix-up about how to think about saying stuff and what to say. Between talking science and talking about science. Between framing and talking about framing.

  6. igor eduardo kupfer

    I think a lot of the concern about “framing” is that people assume the evidence should speak for itself, and any attempt at putting the evidence into some kind of context smells like “spin.” The evidence I mean here is not the raw data, but the conclusions drawn and the scientific consensus built around those conclusions. Evolution happens — that is the conclusion, here is the evidence. Why do we need to talk about framing? Lets talk about evidence!

  7. …and that is where they need to dig into some psych literature (or trust the psychologists who tell them) that human brains do not work that way.

  8. Perhaps you meant to say “that all human brains do not work that way.” Obviously, that is not obvious to many of the people who disagree with you. Theirs, presumably, do (work that way).

  9. One’s brain can be trained.
    Also, even the best thinkers get fooled by their brains sometimes. See: the emotional response to “framing”.

  10. “Selling is dirty. Marketing what you are selling is even dirtier. Something to be left to less-than-honest people in the world.”
    That’s right; many intellectuals and scientists think of themselves as a high-minded priestly caste unsullied by the grubby market. It’s in the tradition of Romantic, almost feudal-agrarian, contempt for the shopkeepers and money lenders. (Which is a recurring theme in Continental intellectual criticism of Anglo-American culture.) A lot of intellectuals are contemptuous of the market and have little idea of why and how it works; often they resort to conspiracy theories to explain its operation and impact. Even though – as intellectuals from Marx to Hayek have understood – the market is profoundly antithetical to reactionary forces.

  11. I keep meaning to read Lakoff.
    Bora to the rescue!
    I bet, if we could put the equivalent of an fMRI apparatus into a baseball cap, that we could find that the PZ’s Dennetts and Coturnices of the world were using a different configuration of brain centers than were the Ratzingers, Dodsons, Fallwells and yet again different than the followers of the latter. If a scientific way of getting through life were only a matter if having different beliefs, the same brain functions, those of belief, would be exercised by all. I am reaching for the reason why this debate is not going to end soon or satisfy anyone. I have not quite grasped that reason yet but empirically speaking, the lack of conclusion in this dialectic looks permanent.

  12. My take on “framing:” the word doesn’t really have any connotations to me, because I’d never seen it used this way before I ran across the “Framing Science” and “Framing Conflict” blogs.
    To me, “framing” is just another way of describing good communications skills. Years back I took a communications class for work, and was told that even if we all speak the same language, every person essentially is using their own unique dictionary. “Framing” (at least in an altruistic sense) just means using the same dictionary as the person you’re talking to.
    Consider this — pretty much every field, whether you’re a research physicist or a life insurance salesperson, has its own jargon. Jargon exists for perfectly valid reasons, it’s essentially a subject-specific shorthand and speeds up communication between people with similar backgrounds. Work in a given field long enough, and you’ll rattle off your own personal jargon without even thinking about it. But the flip side of jargon is that once you venture out of your little native intellectual community, the jargon you use and the jargon somebody else uses will no longer be mutually understandable.
    Essentially, we each speak our own micro-language.
    I *think* what the “Framing Science” essay is attempting to say (although it gets a bit tangled in places) is that if you’re attempting to communicate science to the general public, you’ll need to be sufficiently introspective to know when you’re speaking in jargon, and to know how not to. You need to translate your own micro-language to your audience’s micro-language.
    If you only speak French, and I want to tell you something, I’d better say it in French (not Swahili).
    Translating rationale and motivation is much harder. You or I may be excited about our particular fields of work, but it takes some thought to come up with a way to communicate this excitement to the general public. Some folks just can’t pull it off, and that’s fine so long as they realize it. The really good communicators of science (for example, the late Carl Sagan) communicate excitement so well that it looks effortless.
    I think the framing debate comes down to this — we all need to be Sagans now.

  13. I am a, and d, and sometimes accused of c. Though I knew about the negative cannotation of the word ‘framing’ in certain contexts, I do not think that is the reason for my negative reaction.
    On the other hand, my reaction might have more to do with my following the open source versus free software debate; while free software guys like Stallman talk about freedom and stuff and try to sell the idea, open source guys like Eric Raymond say “Shut up and show them the code”. In the context of the present debate that would amount to “Shut up and show them the evidence”. I believe it is a similar response that Dawkins gives to Neil de Grasse Tyson in this video. It just so happens that in the framing debate, my attitude is closer to that of Richard Dawkins, and more akin to that of Eric Raymond.

  14. “Framing” suggests a kind of narrowness to me—-a kind of “thinking inside the box” and not trying to see any angles that did not “fit.” It also suggests that someone “framing” a subject is only putting so much into the frame; what about those colors, that part of the landscape, that did not “make it”?
    I also hear the meaning of being “framed” for a crime (that one is innocent of) and also something about cover-up and conspiracy.
    But one could use a metaphor of a translucent frame—that just helps one to _see_ something a little more closely (like an artist’s viewfinder), after which one takes away the frame.

  15. “Framing” suggests a kind of narrowness to me—-a kind of “thinking inside the box” and not trying to see any angles that did not “fit.” It also suggests that someone “framing” a subject is only putting so much into the frame; what about those colors, that part of the landscape, that did not “make it”?
    That’s a sender-oriented way of looking at things.
    But one could use a metaphor of a translucent frame—that just helps one to _see_ something a little more closely (like an artist’s viewfinder), after which one takes away the frame.
    And that’s a receiver-oriented way of looking at things.
    I’d contend that when dealing with hetergenuous audiences, it’s more helpful to be receiver oriented. And that multiple frames are needed to reach multiple segments of the audience.

  16. First, define “frame” in this context.

  17. fullerenedream

    “Coturnices” 🙂

  18. I’m not a native English-speaker either, but my background is in both science and communications so I’m familiar with Lakoff and the concept of framing. My problem is not with the term per se but with how it’s equated with “persuasion”. There’s a subtle difference between “convincing” and “persuading”. I think convincing entails making someone believe in the truth of something, while persuading means to make someone DO something, and the latter can be easily taken as “manipulating” with all its negative connotations.
    Although I don’t have anything against marketing (in fact, I worked in advertising) I think that it can make any truth look suspicious. That’s because you can target an idea, communicate it effectively and sell it, no matter if it’s right or wrong, true or false. Moreover, I think that approaching science communication as a matter of marketing ideas could send the wrong message, mainly that science is about promoting a particular ideology instead of finding accurate explanations of reality and making correct predictions.
    Now, even with the distinction between long-term and short-term framing that you proposed, the concept is still quite fuzzy. Some people believe it means to dumb-down the science, others believe it’s about appealing to emotions or sweetening things, others think that it means to explain why certain issues matter or to put things in context, and others, that it means to avoid offending the audience. But, in my view, regardless of how you call them, all these notions can lead to ineffective strategies.
    Everyone agrees on the importance of communicating science in the short and in the long term. However, the most important thing is to discuss the aims and the strategies and, unfortunately, the fuzzyness of “framing” and the lack of more concrete examples (such as those given by Matt Nisbet and Mike Dunford) makes it difficult to shift from discussing the meaning to discussing the strategies. I hope the focus changes quickly, because if not, we’ll end up with many frames an no pictures.
    PS: I’m very sorry about your father

  19. I like the short term and long term idea. I’d like to try to frame my own prior writing on the topic in this frame of yours.
    Short term in function is like Goffman. When you and I are communicating there are cues to the “frame” we are in. I need to know that when you use certain terms or make certain references, we are on the same page. One of the examples I give in my posts is this sentence by my friend Carol’s mom to Carol:
    “I think, before your wedding, you should have an affair.”
    Since they were doing the “wedding planning” thing, it was clear to Carol that they were talking about a party of some kind. Carol understood this because of the context of the conversation and her knowledge of the kind of language her mother uses. (She also says “Tomah-toh”)
    When Carol’s fiance, Don, came home, and carol mentioned “My mother thinks I should have an affair” Don was concerned. Carol, of course, was playing a game with the frames, and it was quite funny. That’s short term, or more exactly, immediate.
    Long term relates to what I have been suggesting as the more important alternative, which is redoing the way we teach science to generate a Goffanian frame (different from Nesbit/Mooney’s “spinning”) that becomes generally extant in the public mind, whereby people can understand that at a certain point they are hearing “science” and what that means.
    Scientists either changing the way they communicate or bringing in experts needs to involve both. How will a press release be written, what kind of terminology should be used, etc. is your short term. What programs are advanced for, as the NSF says, “Broader Impacts” … that is clearly your long term.

  20. I used to do science and now I study rhetoric, so I think that I can see both sides. And it’s always seemed to me that Lakoff’s thinking is a bit fluffy. If you read his work, he sees framing as (immediate) context and expression independent. This is made clear by his analytical method, which abstracts back from any particular expression to the more general structure that he sees at work, both the object be framed, and the frame itself. In this way, it’s very similar to much recent work on analogy.
    This is probably all fine and well for those who do cognitive science or rely on logic/predicate calculus, which depend upon such abstracting moves. But in actual language use, particularly in persuasion, the context and exact expression are *key.* It makes a huge difference if I say “Puppies are candy,” “Puppies remind me of candy,” or “Puppies are like Juicy Fruit,” and especially whether I’m at an animal shelter, a rally, or a “dog eaters anonymous” meeting. Silly example, but you get my point.
    Really, what Lakoff has done is translate a specific class of rhetorical troping, analogy, simile, and metaphor, into a language that allows us to discuss it seriously without falling back on “that’s just rhetoric.” And the discomfort that people have with Lakoff is often rooted in the same fear about language that rhetoric helped to establish — that persuasion is manipulation of the individual, and may not be related to the facts or truth of the case. Read debates on the status of persuasion at the end of the seventeenth century and you’ll see what I mean.

  21. “For many, many years, the only meaning of “frame” for me was the thing you place a picture in. A picture frame can be a piece of art in itself. A well-chosen frame accentuates the art of the picture. The very act of framing a picture means that you have taken it out of a binder hidden in some dusty corner and are going to display it on a wall. All very positive meanings of the word “to frame”…
    Tell me, if your reaction to the word “frame” is negative, why is that so? What, as a non-native English speaker, am I missing?”
    As a native English speaker and layperson who has stumbled on this, I want to add a note about what the word “frame” means to me in everyday language. The meaning you describe is that a “frame” provides a context, or view of something eg a picture frame, a window frame. The thing being framed is separate from its frame.
    Another meaning is implied when I speak of body frame ie skeleton, the frame of a house, a bicycle frame. In these cases the “frame” is an integral part of the object.
    So to me framing an argument is not just about displaying “facts” the way you might display a picture, it involves restructuring the very essence of your ideas – which may be seen as akin to repainting a work of art to suit the wallpaper.