Framing gone wild?

In my daily Sigma Xi e-mail “Science in the News,” I received the following link titled “Science Not Faked, But Not Pretty” about the hacked IPCC e-mails.

Could it be that the scientists were too accepting of advice that they should pay attention to the way they frame their arguments for the general public?

LONDON (Associated Press) — E-mails stolen from climate scientists show they stonewalled skeptics and discussed hiding data–but the messages don’t support claims that the science of global warming was faked, according to an exhaustive review by The Associated Press.

The 1,073 e-mails examined by the AP show that scientists harbored private doubts, however slight and fleeting, even as they told the world they were certain about climate change. However, the exchanges don’t undercut the vast body of evidence showing the world is warming because of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

The scientists were keenly aware of how their work would be viewed and used, and, just like politicians, went to great pains to shape their message. Sometimes, they sounded more like schoolyard taunts than scientific tenets.

As a science writer, I’m all for clear communication and understanding the needs of your audience. But I’m equally concerned about being respectful of your readers’ intelligence. Don’t frame your argument to make a political point when your job is to present the science in terms your readers can understand.

Fred Bortz

4 thoughts on “Framing gone wild?”

  1. Josh writes: “Any writer — scientific or otherwise — has a responsibility to summarize and clarify the data.”

    I agree with that completely. But Chris Mooney (whose work I usually like–see this review and this review— and others were going around the country a couple of years ago talking to scientists about how important it is to be aware of how they frame their arguments.

    On one hand, that can be interpreted as paying attention to your audience so you can connect well to them–which I stress when teaching others how to write. But I’m concerned that some people were getting quite a different message that led them beyond merely making things clear.

    Certainly, you need to be selective in what you include so people can make sense of the work without having to study all the raw data. That’s framing in the best sense. But you can also be selective in such a way as to support a political position. That’s what I would call “framing gone wild” because it distorts scientific discourse.

    Fred Bortz

  2. Any writer — scientific or otherwise — has a responsibility to summarize and clarify the data. Otherwise, we’d just publish the raw data.

    One of the challenges in writing a scientific paper is that data are complicated, and the complicated bits take many more words to describe than the simple parts. One can easily end up with a paper showing a big effect (First-born children are three feet taller than only children!) but spend half the paper dealing with some complicated tidbit (unless they were born on a Thursday before 10am…except that’s really due to three subjects who were measured by a nurse who we think was drunk). The problem is that the more words you spend on something, the more more important it seems.

    There is always the risk that the complications you choose to excise turn out to have been important, but that has to be balanced against the risk that if you include those complications, nobody will understand the paper (also bad). But this is not an avoidable problem.

    I’m not saying that’s what the scientists in the emails were doing, but it’s worth thinking about.

    Games with Words (also known as “CogLangLab”)

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