Friday, April 27, 2007

Framing the return...

Stephen wrote:

"I saw your comment on the framing post I wrote. You say that framing might be in dangerous hands when used by scientists, as scientists might "end up feeding into societal norms".

My comment is: if we all use framing in our daily life whenever we talk about our research to friends and family (unless your entire social sphere is made up of scientists), why would now be dangerous to frame when talking to the Anonimous Public?

We frame when we talk to somebody who does not agree with us; we frame when we want to make sure that somebody from the other side of the world understands what we mean...etc.

Look at the discussion started by Moran and PZ, about how successful rude suffragettes were: they are framing their approach to active atheism as something successful, successful because it has been show to be so, according to their interpretation, by history. Are they being dishonest, or dangerous, for that matter? No, they are just making a point. Maybe using a "frame" not everybody likes - it is a bit of a hyperbole - but making a valid point nevertheless."

The danger is how we frame. Nisbet advocates that scientists frame to get people to make up their minds "in the absence of knowledge, and importantly, to articulate an opinion." Dietram Scheufele when discussing ads for/against stem cells, which he highlights as good framing, reiterates the point "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." The point is to resonate with social identity of people. What helps create social identities? All the biases (sexism, racism, classism, etc). What does it take combat such biases that we all have? It takes time to think and to engage the actual facts.

Science in the United States is predominated by people like me, white males. We have blinders as we have privilege in our society. Look at this exchange last fall between Chad, Dr. Free Ride and Zuska (part II) regarding women in physics and the college level. Most of us men like to think of ourselves as the good guy and not part of the problem. The thing is if that was true thing would be a lot better. The evidence in the sciences, contrary to what Larry Summers might think, is that we do engage in a selection bias favoring men over women (read I, read II, read III).

Scientists are busy people. It is a working hypothesis as to why such sexism in science. They do not have the time to really sit down and look at the facts with regards to personnel decisions. What happens when you add engaging the public without focusing on the facts but trying persuade people? Aren't the odds favored towards playing to societal norms without even really realizing it?

Nisbet and Mooney are advocating this type of framing to get policy changed based on scientific data. It is not to promote science. They are very worried especially on issues of global warming. They don't think we have the time to live up to "the scientific or democratic ideal". It is about winning in the here and now. That puts a pressure to engage frames that are easy.

The easiest ones to engage tend to be the ones that fit into our societal norms.

What is the role of scientists in this debate? Should they be the ones engaging in framing issues based on shortcuts? Or should they be the ones injecting the facts? Framing is impossible to escape. It is harder to frame to communicate facts than to frame to play to someone's prejudices.

I would contend because of the dominance of white males and because they speak from a position of authority, that scientists should refrain from doing the former and focus more on the latter.

Moran and Myers are actively engaging in breaking down frames (and yes you frame to do that). It is different than what I have talked about or what Nisbet and Mooney are advocating. The are fighting societal norms. Nisbet and Mooney speak out against that as a strategy to win on issues in the here in now. That was the point of their WaPo piece by bringing up Dawkins and Myers.

To sum up my thoughts. The danger I see in scientists framing the way Nisbet and Mooney advocates is because so many scientists are from the dominant group in society. The pressure to win now selects for playing into culturally based biases which white males tend to have blinders to seeing. Overall I consider this to be negative for society and potentially harmful to science as it will keep science white male dominated in the US. Not to mention when the gotcha moment comes and the authority of scientists is undermined. Basically if the other side is not framing with facts, the easiest option is to pull a couple of choice facts that muddy the waters, through them out there and begin questioning the honesty of the other side.

1 comment:

steppen wolf said...


I get your point.

However, what would be another - practical - option? Training "science communicators" - who by the way would, at least at the moment, have troubles getting hired?

The problem is that, before science education is seriously reformed, and the position of science communicator becomes more accepted, also within the academic community - which still sees it as an "alternative" career - a short-term compromised must be made. And that would see scientists in the role of communicators.

I also hardly believe that Moran and Myers are trying to break the frame. Their posts are in fact fantastic examples of framing - done for their own usual audience.