the top three requirements for good science writing are scientific accuracy, scientific accuracy, and scientific accuracy. As soon as you sacrifice the attempt to convey good accurate science to the general public then you’re not doing science writing. You’re doing something else.
He presents this as a compelling argument against framing, but I think it argues for very careful thought about how we frame arguments. Misframing an argument can leave the audience with a sense of the data exactly contrary to what you actually presented. Accurate framing is a part of scientific accuracy.
Part of the problem is that scientists are trained not to trust language. A journal article is not meant to make an argument through the text, the text is supposed to be a gauzy veil through which your colleagues can see the data itself. We all know that the actual practice is a little trickier, but that is how we are taught. Metaphor, literary allusions and other attempts at textual massaging of stories that the data tell is frowned upon in the scientific community.
Unfortunately, that style carries over into the way we present scientists to nonspecialists in popular magazines, blogs, news stories and even classrooms. My experiment with the Invisible College has taught me a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Part of what I’ve learned is that you are always framing, whether you intend it or not. As a corollary scientists who don’t intend to frame things, and as a result are frequently doing it badly, to their own detriment.
What is “framing” anyway? It centers on the simple point that Bora makes in his summary: “There is no such thing as emotion-free language.” However you express yourself in words, math, or graphics, you are going to evoke some emotional response in your subject. The same concept expressed in different ways will produce different subconscious responses, and that will mean that your audience learns something different, depending how you express an idea.
The power of that concept is obvious. To Larry and to others, the concept itself evokes some very negative frames. Larry (above) sees it as a fundamental contrast to accuracy, while PZ Myers says this of scientists’ failure to use effective framing:
We are not trained to be glib and glossy, and we simply do not come across as well as we could. We’re also not really that interested, generally speaking, in the kind of presentation that plays well in 3 minutes on a news broadcast.
Effective framing is not about producing sound bites (which tend to be closer to 10 seconds than 3 minutes) or seeming glossy. I confess I’d rather be glib than tongue-tied, but I think glib is meant to tie in which Larry’s sense that framing and accuracy are negatively correlated.
This is unfortunate, and I suppose it means framing needs to be reframed. I’d ask Drs. Moran and Myers to consider how they prepare for a class they are going to teach, and how they mentor new professors/TAs handling their first semesters teaching. Careful thought goes into not just what to present when, but how to present it to maximize comprehension and accuracy. We’ve all been in dull, poorly organized lectures which left us feeling stupider after it was over than before, and we’ve all had classes where every lecture contained at least one “Aha!” moment and a few “I get it“s. Sometimes those are different people teaching the same class, from the same syllabus. One opens a door and leads students through, the other thinks that’s the data’s job, or perhaps the students’.
In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore talks about how he refines his slideshow by “removing blocks,” the phrases, examples or data that cause people to dig in their heels. The response is not to fudge the data or to be inaccurate (experts are in general agreement that he did pretty well in terms of accuracy). The response is to express that same idea as accurately, in a way that people will understand and integrate into their thinking. Good teachers do that with their presentations and lecturers. That’s framing.
Framing helps clarify issues and convinces the audience that they care. Before and during the Kansas Kangaroo Kourt, I organized something I called “the Evolution Project,” a demonstration for the general public of the power and central importance of evolution to all of science. I made efforts to summarize at least a fraction of the papers published every week which used, demonstrated or otherwise relied on evolutionary biology. In a few months I’d posted excerpts and brief summaries from a few hundred papers and I felt like my brain would explode. (The Non-evolution Project was, predictably, less taxing.)
After summarizing 300 papers, I posted some reflections on what I’d learned from the effort. I concluded it by writing:
Every scientific paper should be summarized, by the author or a colleague, in a blog post. Many paper’s abstracts [that I summarized] had one sentence that was interesting to the public, or maybe parts of two sentences. The blog summary would use that sentence, explain why a scientist would care, and what it means to the public.
The public neither understands nor cares to understand the scientific context of a paper. So use metaphors that work for the community. But also present a clear, public statement of what this research means in simple terms.
That’s a form of framing. It isn’t dishonest, it isn’t a call to leave out details that matter. It’s a call to explain what we do in ways that make sense and are compelling to nonspecialists. If that isn’t the goal, why bother blogging, or teaching, or giving public presentations? Chris, Matt, PZ, Larry and I all share a set of goals. The question is how best to achieve them.
I’m here to learn and to teach. Here in grad school, here in the blogosphere, and perhaps even here on earth. There are other goals, too, of course, but learning and teaching are important. I pay attention to my student evaluations because I want to be a better teacher, and I pay attention to responses on the blog for the same reason. Dr. Myers complains of the framing advocates: “nowhere is there an understanding or acknowledgment that scientists must also stretch boundaries, or even break them.”
I would be the first to say that teaching means stretching, even breaking, boundaries. I just think that if there’s a door, or a window, that’s a better way to get at someone than banging your head against a wall. Framing is a tool that lets you stretch people’s minds, and keeps them from shutting you out.