Ben at Eclectic’s Anonymous has a piece up commenting on the current “framing” debate going on in the science blogger community.
I don’t really know much about the original paper that introduced the concept of framing into the scientific debate…because you have to pay to read it. So reading the commentary on it is a little like trying to follow a conversation by just listening to one side of it.
But I will try.
Near as I can tell, Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet put out a paper saying “Maybe we should try to figure out what it is that the public doesn’t understand about key areas of science that have become political footballs, and instead of giving them more facts and figures to digest we should give them a better means of digesting the facts and figures that they have.”
Framing is nothing new to people who are in marketing, or in politics, or Human Resources…or domestic abusers and those who try to rescue their victims (more on this later).
“Framing” seems like such a bad thing to some people because it is, at its heart, manipulative. Some of us prefer to be allowed to make up our own minds about things, and when we smell “framing”, we think that someone is resorting to such tactics because their material can’t stand on its own.
But as Ben points out, it has gotten to the point where there is so much information that impacts us every day, that we cannot be expected to know it all. Add to this that there is active MISINFORMATION being spread, and on top of that, there are competing “frames” that have been being refined and come so readily to hand for the anti-science crowd, that the inability of the common man to understand everything he should amounts to more than laziness or disinterest or even something that can be called ignorance.
Framing helps get a message of how evolution REALLY works across without having to begin at the level of Eukaryotic cell structure to teach a middle-aged Sunday School teacher with three kids of her own who all need to get to their orthodontist’s appointments on time.
The anti-science forces don’t balk at “framing”. That is how they manage to get their 80% of the population to doubt evolution. They don’t have to prove that God has his angels on a protein assembly line working over-time to roll out the this year’s upgraded model of the Avian Flu virus. All they have to do is yell “Monkey’s uncle!” or “gaps in the fossil record” or “scientists disagree”…and they shed enough doubt to get their audience to do their work for them.
Framing the forces of “evolution” as “just random chance” has been VERY successful…but I wonder what would happen if scientists managed to shift the emphasis in the debate from “Random mutation” to “the relentlessly ordering force of Natural Selection”. The idea that we could just spontaneously emerge from some primordial ooze is, of course, ridiculous. Many people reject the idea of “evolution” just because of that frame. I talk to otherwise intelligent people who wave their hands and say “well, I don’t know what happened, but I can’t believe we’re the result of random chance”.
Right now, many people see the choice as being between “our air was created for us to breath. Why else would it be so perfect for us?” or “We just randomly happened to spontaneously pop into existence ready to breath the air.”
I don’t think that most people would come to this dichotomy on their own. They see this as the choice to make because it has been framed so by the anti-science types…and there are few people out there who are interested in seriously providing another frame…because it seems so “stupid” to have to say “maybe only things that could use the air survived to replicate, and maybe those that were able to use the air most successfully survived and replicated more successfully.”
The main problem with this from the scientist’s point of view is that it is simplistic and imprecise. But to be more complex and more precise is to lose the soccer mom with the orthodontically challenged offspring. And she votes and goes to church and talks on the phone to all of her church friends (who also vote) on the phone about how stupid it is that they have to spend tax money on science books that teach their kids that they come from monkeys, rather than fix the potholes at the intersection down the street.
Reframing can be used to remove these stumbling blocks to understanding. While it is not, in-and-of-itself and answer, it can be one step toward an answer.
Reframing that one thing will not be enough. You will have to have a frame to answer every frame of the anti-science forces, and they will always come up with new ones. More promotion and funding for science education, more emphasis on science education, more strident and strenuous defense of science in the public sphere and more generalized science literacy is the ultimate goal. Wouldn’t it be great if people could just understand and know what they need to in order to be good consumers of science information on their own?
But you aren’t going to get that unless you first convince people that they have a reason to want it and value it. Marketing. Promotion. Branding.
It seems so dishonest, doesn’t it? Manipulative. Abusive. Distasteful.
Yes and no.
Think about a situation of domestic abuse. The bad partner in the abuse creates a view of reality. A “frame” if you will. They spend a lot of time and energy to create a world where their partner is alienated from friends and family (eliminating competing frames), they make it difficult or even impossible for their partner to maintain a job or reliable habits. They create a “frame” for reality where they are the most powerful person in the partner’s world. They are the person that the partner fears, and yet also looks to for protection. They set up a “choice” where the abused partner “chooses” between two outcomes…both originally selected by the abusive partner, and presented as the only alternatives in a closed system.
In that “frame” there is a choice between “order” (the imposed order of the abusive partner) and “chaos” (the results of disobedience in rejecting order).
Enter the domestic violence worker. The helper’s job is to break down the frame. She can’t so it by depicting the abuser as a monster, because that is part of the frame. The monster abuser isn’t responsible for their behavior, because in the “frame” the abused “chooses” the monster through disobedience, rather than the “protector” form of the abuser.
She has to do it by offering a different frame, and inviting the abused partner to explore it. Rather than attacking one side of the frame, only to have the abused partner defend the flip side (the side the abused person sees as the only alternative), the helper presents a frame that allows for other choices.
You might call the Domestic Violence Worker’s frame “reality”. You might wonder why she has to present this frame at all. You might think it’s a waste of time for her to have to present it to someone who won’t accept it.
But in her absence, the abusive partner can continue to frame the situation, not making it impossible for the abused partner to escape, but making it less likely.
To get the abused person to leave the abusive person, you might realize that they need a job and a car and a house or apartment to live in, but getting them all those things is not only putting the cart before the horse, but ultimately useless if they do not have a new frame through which to view their relationship to those things, as well as the rest of the world. If they continue to accept their role within the old frame, nothing you do can change their outcome…no matter what other things you add to the mix. While a job, car and a place to live SHOULD give them independence…they will never achieve it without first accepting and embracing a new frame. Gaining the tools of independence without actually gaining that independence will just cause them to have new tools to use as the abuser dictates.
If you continue to allow the opposition to frame the argument as being one between God’s order and chaos, for instance, or between environmental safety and economic stability, or public health and personal freedom or whatever…it will not matter how much information you give them, they will still continue to view things with the same process and outcome. They will use the new information as dictated by the old frame.