Framing Science: Spin or Communication?

As a scientist who has morphed into a full-time writer, I care deeply about both the substance and communication of science to the general public.

I’m sure American University Communications Professor Matt Nisbet shares my concerns, but I have to admit a rather large degree of discomfort with his advocacy of an approach he calls “framing science.”

The concept has created quite a stir, yet I can’t figure out what is truly novel about it. Good communication has always required the writer/speaker/communicator to understand and connect to the audience. For example, Nisbet has gathered a great panel to discuss Communicating Science in a Religious America at next February’s meeting of the American association for the Advancement of Science, including William and Mary Anthropology Professor Barbara King, whose book Evolving God addresses the origins of religion in a way that both believers and nonbelievers will find fascinating.

But did King consciously “frame” her argument for her audience? Or did she merely recognize an important question that she could share with them?

The difference between merely communicating and framing seems to me to be this: Framing is a technique designed to persuade rather than to merely inform.

In my writing for children, my goal is to inform my readers. I make clear how science deals with uncertainty and controversy, but I don’t shy away from drawing conclusions from the interplay of observations and theorizing.

If I were to write a book about global warming, for example (editors take note!), I would definitely discuss the consensus view and the various scenarios that need to be considered. My point of view would be clear — and that’s where the term “framing” starts to bother me.

To present my point of view, I would offer my readers the “big picture.” Framing, it seems to me, reduces the presentation to a series of snapshots.

That approach is appropriate for advertising and for political persuasion, but it gets uncomfortably close to what has come to be called “spin” in modern political discussion.

Although I would love to be able to attend Nisbet’s AAAS panel next February, I wish he would go back to his academic department’s name, Communication, when dealing with science, and leave “framing” for his colleagues in the departments of Political Science and Marketing (or whatever they are called at American U.)

5 thoughts on “Framing Science: Spin or Communication?

  1. I think I disagree with you on this one. First, I looked at his blog, and I’m not sure he’s advocating “framing science.” I’m curious what you looked at. This is the page I looked at.

    What he does say is that whenever you are communicating, what you say is packaged. You either emphasize what you think is interesting, what you think your audience will think is interesting, or what you think your audience should find interesting. There is no such thing as “just the facts,” because no matter what, you aren’t going to list all the facts (there are too many) and you can’t list all of them first.

    In your blog entry, you actually described how you frame what you write about. The blog claims to be interested in how different people frame different scientific issues. I think it’s interesting, too, and I may start reading the blog!

    I said I “think” I disagree with you, because I think the issue may be one of semantics and connotation. To many people, “framing” and “packaging” sounds like what advertisers do. It sounds like distortion. And it is true, the techniques can be used to distort. But they can also be used to better inform. Hitler was excellent at framing. So was Martin Luther King, Jr.

    If the blog you pointed to is arguing that scientists need to do a better job of packaging their information, I would whole-heartedly agree. Look at how successful people who distort science have been. It’s important to push back and do so effectively.

    Please try my web-based experiments

  2. If Matt Nisbet is not advocating “framing science,” then why does he call his blog “Framing Science”?

    I guess for me, and perhaps also for you (coglanlab), the key is this question: What is novel about Matt’s approach? How is it any different from the traditional discussion of effective communication?

    My discomfort comes from the fact that the term “framing” is normally used to describe persuasive writing, and it has gotten an awful lot of play in the political arena. You can find innumerable discussions about how the political right has been successful by framing the argument around their preferred terms.

    When I see so much discussion about the need to “frame” rather than the need to communicate well, it seems like marketing and politics to me.

    Perhaps the word “framing” has been framed. Just as the once noble word “liberal” now carries a bad odor in some discourse–something that a proud liberal like me hopes to see reversed–so it is that the once noble idea of “framing” to connect with one’s audience now sounds a bit like “spinning.”

    In this case, as long as Matt and others continue to call attention to framing as if it is distinct from the broader idea of clear communication, I continue to grow more uncomfortable about it.

    Have I framed this clearly? 🙂

    Fred Bortz — Science and technology books for young readers (www.fredbortz.com) and Science book reviews (www.scienceshelf.com)

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