"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Farewell to Framing

I came to AGU a day early for this?

Matt Nisbet, Max Boykoff and the euphoniously named Gwendolyn Blue formed a panel on public communication of science. I enjoyed it on the whole; Ms. Blue's presentation in particular was delightful, but the more I think about the whole thing the more convinced I am that it missed the mark altogether.

Now this blog came on the scene pretty much simultaneous with the famous Nisbet and Mooney Nature item which discussed the necessity for "framing" science in a way that would be palatable to the target audience. I'm a sort of cultural chameleon myself, so I'm perhaps more aware than other scientists of when scientific arrogance is more likely to piss people off than to attract them. I thought avoiding P Z Myers confrontationalism was all this framing business was about.

I remain a Chris Mooney fan, but having seen Nisbet in action, I now see that the person who has staked out "framing science" as his personal territory pretty much doesn't get science.

To be sure, I'm not sure there were any scientists in the audience. Simon Donner said he'd show up, but I didn't see him. And much as I appreciate Steve Easterbrook, not to mention yours truly, both of whom were evident in the audience, we really aren't your core AGU audience either. Melanie Fitzpatrick of the Union of Concerned Scientists was there, but you can't really call her a practicing scientist either. Other identified participants were mostly political or educational types, too.

I didn't really see any major league researchers there, so the whole episode was sort of ironically moot to begin with. That turned out to be a good thing. As you will see, I don't recommend real scientists expend many synapses on this gang.

Boykoff kicked it off, and managed to go 18 minutes before mentioning the CRU email hacking, which I appreciated, and he did encourage participation by scientists, but he pretty much fell right into the "global warming, yes or no" frame and followed polls.

He also bought into the idea that the blogosphere was totally obsessed with the CRU business. He dismissed my point that article counts don't tell you much on the web, and that Google search metrics didn't show a lot of interest in the business among the real world. He shrugged and said I should trust him to compare "apples to apples". Yeah, dude, but those are really teeny tiny apples on one side, you know?

Nisbett was also all about "global warming, yes or no", so much that he seemed to think "communicating science" was all about communicating "global warming, yes". He yammered about Al Gore incessantly. He mentioned the CRU business within seconds, and had called it "climategate". He kept referring to AGU as "environmental scientists"!

This is the guy who wants to tell us about "framing"?

The worst of it was all the spin he was advocating had nothing whatsoever to do with science. We should talk about energy. About security. We should take a tip from congress who renamed "Cap and Trade" to "America's Clean Energy and Security". We should talk about the birds and the fishes. Well fine. What you need a geophysicist for in that case escapes me entirely.

It emerged that the panelists were confident that the public does not care about science, and that you should feed them symbols instead because they will ignore rational argument. To those who object that this is exactly what Al Gore did in his movie, they amend their position to state that you should feed them symbols and not be Mr Gore, but that otherwise what Gore does is perfect.

People in the audience had trouble absorbing all of this. The advice to scientists, then, is to dress up like scientists and deliver PR just like the PR office tells them to.

Ms Blue softened the blow a little bit. She wrapped it up with an interesting story of consensus building among a nonexpert population, with consensus facilitators and scientific documents but no scientific authorities in the room. Most of the subgroups ended up supporting a fairly strong negotiating position in Copenhagen (30% reductions by 2020 or such) but they were playing by the rules, which meant to treat the science as true. Apparently one table had a convinced denialist who had brought his own briefing book; it wasn't stated but I imagine his table didn't have as good a time as they were playing more by real world rules. It was an interesting experiment but it completely begged the question of which briefing book people are using, didn't it?

In the end, the social scientists presented an audience of educators, reporters and activists with the message that physical scientists should give up any hope of influencing how people actually weigh evidence. People simply aren't interested in scientific process. Scientists are weird and should accept that; democracy works purely on superficial and symbolic processes.

This isn't what I read from serious skeptics, who are livid about getting symbolism when they ask substantive questions. The small group of relevant scientists are telling the truth when they say "we really don't have time to discuss everything in detail, even with people who aren't adamant about distrusting us; we have work to do". The vicious circle of hostility and suspicion feeds on the opacity of science, not the excess of "information".

The social scientists, big on frames, totally shared the frame of the denialists that climate science is about "global warming", and presumed that AGU is about climate science. Of course, if that were true, we wouldn't be very busy at all. We'd have answered the question "global warming, yes or no" in the affirmative already. So all we need to do now is to just sell our idea like soap. After all the other guys are doing that. If we don't come up with better branding and clever promotional programs, is it any wonder we're losing market share?

Well, if this is framing, you can keep it, thanks.


James Annan said...

Well, if this is framing, you can keep it, thanks.

I admire your patience and open-mindedness, but the cynic in me can't resist pointing out that you have merely belatedly reached the same place many of us got to a few years back :-)

I don't know about the others, but Nisbet would be merely a complete irrelevance if he hadn't managed to beguile a few of the well-meaning but gullible (yes, I mean Mooney) along the way.

Martin Vermeer said...

Michael, honest question. You read Randy Olsen's book, didn't you? To what extent does your conclusion here apply to the argument he presents?

I read the book, could see his points, but remained feeling uncomfortable. You seem to put words to my discomfort. Comment?

Michael Tobis said...

Sorry haven't read it and you've made it less likely that I will...

Anyone else care to comment on Olsen?

Martin Vermeer said...


don't take this as an anti-recommendation for 'Don't be such a scientist'. I found it a thought-provoking read, and Randy is clearly sincere and in a position to have opinions on what he writes about...

Anna Haynes said...

Me, I liked Olson's book. YMMV.

Here's Steve Easterbrook's Day 0 account - AGU Day 0: Restarting the Climate Conversation

(uninformed gripe: I do wish the Twitter tagging (#AGU09) was by talk, or by room, & not by the entire conference. I read through last summer's World Conference of Science Journalists twitter feed, and with multiple simultaneous talks it was like listening to someone with multiple personality disorder.)

Anna Haynes said...

Spelling: Matthew C. Nisbet

Anna Haynes said...

Shorter MT on framing:
"Don't be confrontational" I understand and accept, but "Be a scientist but don't talk about the science", I don't like at all - especially since I've known people who sincerely have questions about the science, and such science-lite messaging will drive them bananas.

(I'm slow today, & had some trouble working it out)

Michael Tobis said...

Thanks Anna. I'm sorry my message was so long but I did not have time to make it shorter.

(was it Twain who said that first?)

Simon Donner said...

I can't comment on the particulate session, since arrived in town late and missed it. I do think there's some general value in what Nisbet's arguments. Don't "spin" your science - that's obviously a mistake. The objective is simply to keep the frame with which your particular audience places information in mind when presenting. The audience frames information whether you like it or not.

Hank Roberts said...

In other news:


Anonymous said...

I've been chewing on this one all day, and I'm not as down on Nisbet as MT is. Sure, he doesn't have much grasp of what science is. Sure, many of his "frames" are irritating. Sure, his advice is really aimed a people playing politics rather than those interested in science.

But. His illustrations of what the denialists' frames are, and how they work, is pretty compelling, as are his examples of how they reframe the message put out by environmentalists, to great effect. Anyone interested in getting people to understand the science needs to know about this minefield. I would argue that few scientists understand these tactics at all.

I think of frames in the same way that I think of the narratives or theses that I use to organise a talk. A really good talk arranges good content within a compelling frame; a poor talk (seen lots of these already at the AGU meeting) might have good content, but no thought at all about how to frame it for the audience to digest. And a truly crap talk has little content (which, of course, no amount of framing can rescue). The trick is that you need both the content and the framing. And yes, we need some better examples of good framing for science communication than the ones Nisbet provides.

Nisbet is certainly right that talking about impacts (such as public health) is a very effective approach for many audiences. I heard essentially the same message repeated several times in the session today on climate services. For many people, 350, 2degC, 80% cuts, etc are all too abstract, and therefore meaningless. Impacts in their region on health, water, food, etc are the right way to get the message through to such people.

I agree we gotta do a much better job of getting people to think scientifically, but that's a really long term game, and in the meantime, we need some "cognitive shortcuts" to get some initial policy changes in place.

PS Smile, we're on RealClimate.

Tom Adams said...

You seem to be a PR denier, a denier of the effectiveness of PR. Are you not aware of the consensus among researchers and experts on the effectiveness of PR?

I can help pointing out that some important GW deniers are believers and even experts in PR.

Martin Vermeer said...

No Tom Adams, I think you got that wrong. MT's point is that, faced with a choice of losing the PR war, and losing the PR war and your scientific integrity, he will choose the first any time.

Truthfulness is one frame we shouldn't be compromising on. It's not a sacrifice worth making. Ever.

Michael Tobis said...

Martin, true that.

Also if PR is at the expense of the modest amount of public understanding that is crucially needed, good PR does not help the core problem.

Because the core problem is the lack of understanding of our predicament among the general public, especially in the English-speaking countries where the cultivation of ignorance has been so prominent and successful.

storiteller said...

I actually was an undergrad in communication at the same time that Matthew Nisbet was a grad student at Cornell, and so kind of know him off-hand. I think he was a TA in my mass media class. So I'm inclined to like him, and I think a lot of what he has to say is valuable.

However, I completely agree with you that he misses the point in "framing" when speaking to scientists. He would do much better to call his blog "Framing Science-Based Policy." The frames he's talking about aren't framing science itself, but framing policy that is (or at least should be) based on science. That's why his frames are so incredibly political, and often have nothing to do with the hard science aspects themselves.

Now, there are pieces of "climate change science" (which in my opinion includes the economics and public health issues associated with climate, not just the physical science behind it) you can talk about within his frames. For example, you can talk about what public health effects are expected as a result of climate change, such as those laid out in the most recent USGCRP study. When scientists choose what to talk about, they are inevitably picking which topics they think are most relevant to that audience. You can do that without getting "political" and only presenting the information alone. Where Nisbet gets into trouble is he doesn't make that distinction - he frequently tells scientists to expand beyond that "pure" information into the more political/ advocacy realm, which many scientists find inappropriate.

I think the other thing that gives away the fact that he is thinking about framing policy, not science itself, is the fact that he misses out on a lot of really useful frames for science. A common way to frame science is as a "process of discovery," which is used in a lot of magazine profiles of scientists and is a great way of describing the scientific process itself. Another one that's been put to great use is the idea of "wonder" - Carl Sagan's "billions and billions of stars" is a perfect example of that.

Sorry for going on for so long, but as I do science communication, I too am frustrated by how poor much of it is and how far we have to go. I have a dual background in science and comm, so I have sympathy for both sides. I think framing as a place, but it's a tool like anything else and can be used well or badly.