Joshua Bell and Framing Science

Brilliant! Brilliant! Why didn’t I think of this?
A post on Anomalous Data connects the Framing Science debate to the recent Joshua Bell experiment (check some more good bloggy reactions to it).
If you are not familiar with the story (follow the links): Joshua Bell played violin in a subway station and almost nobody stopped to listen or to give him money.
Saw Lady explains exactly why – no framing!
In the experiment/stunt, Bell deliberately played at a wrong place (in the hall where everyone walks through, not at the platform where people wait for trains), at a wrong time (morning rush hour), wearing street clothes and playing unrecognizable (to the mass audience) pieces.
This is like mailing a paper from “Cell” to all your neighbors. They will not read it. If they try, they will not understand it. Then they will trash it (and, if they are impolite, will tell you that you are an idiot for giving them that).
Joshua Bell usually plays within a particular frame. At a concert hall. Wearing a tux. Audience has a printed program that tells them who he is and what pieces he is going to play. It is a very self-selected audience – people who paid big money for the tickets and decided to put aside everything else in their lives for two hours so they could listen to him. They are also people knowledgeable about music and can appreciate his mastery of the instrument. They are likely to be familiar with the pieces. They focus for two hours and listen to every note.
These are cell biologists reading a paper in “Cell”.
But, Bell could have done better by framing himself differently. He could have played on the platform. He could have played during the afternoon rush hour. He could have worn a tux. He could have had a placard stating who he is (establishing ‘expertise’). He could have talked to the passers-by and engaged them. He could have mixed obscure pieces with some popular pieces (those are not “lies” – they are just more interesting pieces to the particular lay audience than to the experts).
I bet people would have stopped and listened and given money.
End result: people would have heard and appreciated the obscure pieces he played.
Know your audience. Engage it. Gain its trust. Establish authority with them. Then, you can deliver your message.
That is framing.
It has nothing to do with the appaling state of music education in the country, with the bad musical tastes of the population, or stupidity of people who did not instantly recognize his mastery. That was not his job at the moment (though he may also be involved, in a completely different way, in fighting for music education, etc.).
Katie Kish has more on framing science.
Update: Revere, Teresa Lhotka, Austin Cline, Madhu, Daniel, Tyler DiPietro, Kristjan Wager, Marco F, Daylight Atheism, Alethian and Daniel Morgan are chiming in.
Matt Nisbet, Chris Mooney, Steppen Wolf, Brad, Kristjan Wager, Eric Eckl, Terry and LeisureGuy add more….
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

14 responses to “Joshua Bell and Framing Science

  1. Bravo!
    You are so right: I often catch the attention of teen-agers in the subway – kids who never listen to classical music and have a bad opinion on it. I get them to stop and listen and their reaction is usually “what, that was classical music?! But that was beautiful!”
    Framing is the way.
    Thank you for this post!
    Saw Lady

  2. “Know your audience. Engage it. Gain its trust. Establish authority with them. Then, you can deliver your message.
    That is framing.”
    Quoted from the Paedophiles’ Handbook.

  3. Was that a joke?
    Perhaps not. That is actually, how the Right Wing rapes the country.
    For science, the message is truth.

  4. It’s not a joke. It’s framing.

  5. It’s interesting how the political left and right react to notions of context – also known as situation, lebenswelt, placement, intentionality, framing and a number of other terms.
    When the left insist that to understand why a particular country produces terrorist groups you need to know its history, the right deride this as obscurantism, doubletalk, woolly liberalism, giving succour to terrorists and justifying evil.
    When the right talk about framing the issue of Iraq, the left say it’s just another attempt to be slippery, evasive and avoid the real issues.
    It’s not enough to say both sides misrepresent the other and the truth must be somewhere in the middle. Both sides seem to mean something slightly different by “context”, but I’m not sure what.
    On a personal note, one of the ScienceBlogs bloggers once called me a “Postmodern Relativist” (without understanding either term) in a debate on those Danish cartoons.
    For him, the issue was that Islam, being authoritarian and an religion, is inherantly antirational and cannot tolerate debate or mockery. For me, the issue was that a small number of highly sensitive Muslims had been deliberately provoked, so as to provide a spectacle which painted Muslims as fanatics.
    Each of us thought the other was confused and missing the point.

  6. Of course PZ and the rest are framing science, but they do not see it that way. They see science as a way to promote atheism, and cannot understand that their agresive atheism is actually doing a lot of harm. Thanks for a great post. This is the best explination of framing I have read.

  7. Mustafa Mond, FCD

    They see science as a way to promote atheism, and cannot understand that their agresive atheism is actually doing a lot of harm.

    Nice piece of “framing” there. So their purpose in promoting science is to promote atheism? I hope you don’t belong to one fo those religions which forbid “bearing false witness.” I think it would be more accurate to say that they value rationality and reason, and they promote both science and atheism as incarnations of that.

    Maybe next you could provide some evidence for all this harm they are doing.

  8. Hmm, well the analogy would fit better if he had tried to play at a more optimal time/location, but was turned down by subway administrators that insisted violins lead to immorality.
    Then if a couple people came along and admonished him for playing at a sub-optimal arena and started blaming him and his colleagues in their Ivory Stages for not engaging the public. And those people insisted that if THEY were classical musicians, there wouldnt be a problem with people appreciating Bach, even though no one had allowed them to play during the afternoon or at a loading area either. Then they would have to start attacking conductors for playing Scheherazade too many times, cause atheism and classical music should never be connected, or else people wont like classical music.
    Sorry, coturnix. I do appreciate your patience with this topic. But Im getting more and more offended every time this duo opens their mouths. Im done with it.

  9. My concern is not in framing but how you frame. The pressure is to win issues in the next couple of election cycles in the United States because they are vitally important. That is the argument I am getting in the short-term from you and Mooney & Nisbet. Is that correct?
    Taking that as a yes, then how do you counterbalance the pressure to win now to not tap into frames that play into biases in society? The WaPo article could very easily be seen as playing into the fears of atheists that is fostered in the US. In advocating framing science why focus on longterm/macro framers, one who has a book and the other (Myers) who lets face it most of the audience of WaPo doesn’t even know? Why not focus the energy on being positive instead of attacking?
    “That’s the power and influence of framing when it resonates with an individual’s social identity. It plays on human nature by allowing a citizen to make up their minds in the absence of knowledge, and importantly, to articulate an opinion. It’s definitely not the scientific or democratic ideal, but it’s how things work in society.”
    “And they highlight a key aspect of successful communication. Neither proponents nor opponents of stem cell research build their arguments on scientific information. What they rely on are heuristics or cognitive shortcuts that will allow voters to make decisions without understanding the obvious complexities surrounding the issues. And it doesn’t matter if these shortcuts are based on religious beliefs, celebrity, or personal hopes. Packaging matters … regardless of which side of the issue you’re on.”
    What shortcuts should scientists ethically use and what ones would be unethical? The other side frames issues & people in the context of preconcieved biases. Lets take the ad against Harold Ford in the last election. It played into sexism and racism. It works because these frames are easy to fall into. They are the default frames is you will. People who work long hours with long commutes do not have the time to fight such biases unless they are called on it Overcoming such biases requires time and thought. Many scientists fall into these default traps as is. When they frame to the general society how will we keep them from appealing to those default frames? It is going to require training and time and not to mention a change in the culture at research universities.
    To win now by appealling to people “to make up their minds in the absence of knowledge, and importantly, to articulate an opinion” based on subjectives also can feed into this aspect of the culture of the US, making the long term strategies harder to achieve. It takes us further from our democratic ideals as even Nisbet admits. It may be a political reality but should we be feeding it?

  10. Could we please frame the framing debate clearly? what are we trying to achieve? who is the target audience? what are the objectives? what is our working hypothesis?
    I suspect that the “a-ha” refers to the fact that learning and teaching are not mathematical/ abstract propositions performed by computers. The containers & actors in learning are human brains/ minds, and theories such as Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development ( explain how a person cannot magically jump from understanding A to Z without mini-jumping from A to B then to C then to D then to…(this is even more obvious more a brain development point of view).
    If we want to persuade/ convince someone of something, we better approach as a (mutual) learning opportunity starting from wherever we and they are at that stage of understanding. This is a process-not a one time event, to help create attractors and pathways on top of existing ones.
    And, yes, it is tough to be both a good scientist and teacher at the same time-but it can be done.

  11. Good one.
    I just wish Mooney/Nisbet had not picked on atheists in their latest article. The discussion started on ScienceBlogs might have started to go somewhere.
    Apart from that: I hear people saying that scientists are already busy, that the best research scientists maybe did not get trained as science communicators, etc. No excuse: as researchers, we are forced to continuously learn, and to keep up-to-date with research in our field. Some of us keep up with the news; a few find the time to blog. Then what is so hard in training as a communicator? Try to write in normal newspapers, and it will take you 2 seconds to see what kind of framing Mooney/Nisbet are talking about.
    But please, no atheist-bashing. We get bashed enough in our everyday lives.

  12. Your comparison of music appreciators to readers of Cell is woefully inadequate.
    To understand Cell requires anywhere from some education (ability to read and some exposure to biology, to just get the gist of a paper) to a Ph.D. in a sub-discipline of biology. To appreciate the Bach d-minor chaconne played by a great violinist requires nothing in the way of prerequisites. One can know nothing at all about music and be powerfully moved, as it is a visceral, emotional experience rather than a matter of being able to follow along intellectually with a score. (I speak from experience, as that piece was one of my first exposures to classical music, which I experienced for the first time as an adult, and it moved me profoundly the first time.)
    If it were primarily a matter of framing, then I take it you would expect similar results if Radiohead or Britney Spears (who would be just as much out of context) played for 45 minutes under the same circumstances? I think most of us probably believe there would be more interest — more like thousands of listeners and the station being shutdown due to the chaos that would ensue.
    And fyi, the Bach chaconne that he played twice is not an obscure piece of music. It is one of the most easily recognizable and most well-known of all violin pieces.
    It’s no surprise to me that so few cared. Even when you see somebody like Joshua Bell in a performance (correctly framed, as you would have it), it’s clear that many of those who attend do so not out of any appreciation or passion for the music itself but because it’s what their social class is expected to do in order to see and be seen.

  13. John Doe,
    Appreciating music and understanding music are two different things.
    It is possible to do one or the other, but the experience is at it’s fullest when you can do both.
    Making it accessible is helpful for both.
    I think that reading Cell unprepared could be somewhat compared to listening to Rite of Spring unprepared. And we all know what happened the first time it was performed for an unprepared audience. Properly “framed” it is a widely recognised masterpeice. Improperly “framed”, it was just an impetus for a riot (summary rejection).

  14. Teresa,
    I largely agree with everything you’ve said, but you do not really address my point at all. Saying that more didn’t listen because it didn’t have the correct framing is like saying that more didn’t listen because they weren’t giving out hundred-dollar bills to listen. Yes, better framing would have made some difference, just as giving out hundred-dollar bills would have, but neither the framing nor the absence of hundred-dollar bills is helpful in understanding the lack of interest.
    Bell was not performing The Rite of Spring or Webern twelve-tone transcriptions. The Chaconne is one of the most amazingly beautiful pieces in all of the violin repertoire. I just listened to the recording of Bell in the subway station, and I can only imagine how incredible it must have sounded live in person.
    Framing has very little to do with why so few stopped and listened. Radiohead or Britney Spears with the same framing would have had a radically different outcome. This was simply a matter of priorities. The passers by valued the time they use for getting a donut from starbucks on the way to work — or being on time or whatever else — more than what they were hearing.