Jason objects to the claim that science is badly framed. He offers several examples in which he feels that:
it is the pleasantness of the message, not the slickness of the marketing, that is relevant.
That’s the fatal flaw in the argument [by Nisbet, Mooney, etc.]. The problem isn’t ineffective framing, it’s having a message most people find unappealing. But there are other problems as well.
Which is to say, the problem is ineffective framing. Framing isn’t about slickness. That’s a misframing of framing. (Yes, I’ve now made myself sick of the term.) Framing is about finding a message that will be effective at interesting and engaging your audience, which is to say an appealing message. It’s about giving the audience a mental shortcut to help them evaluate the message.
Jason’s examination of the examples are basically right, but his misdefinition of framing as “slick marketing” causes him to misinterpret the result.
He points out that the global warming debate in the public sphere has gotten framed in terms of personal sacrifice, while the evolution debate in the public sphere has gotten framed in terms of morality. Jason observes that:
In both cases the anti-science side has a message people want to buy, while the pro-science side has a message most people find rather gloomy. All the slick marketing and clever framing in the world will not change that simple fact.
But changing the message will change whether the audience likes the message. Global warming need not be an issue of personal sacrifice. Look at the hue and cry that rose up around catalytic converters and the ban on CFCs, and then look at the actual effects. We can make these transitions in ways that don’t destroy the economy or require deep personal sacrifices. Furthermore, there is a profound moral component to finding a real solution to the problem. As the case of evolution shows, a moral framing can be very powerful. Evolution, like gravity and any other scientific theory, is not about moral philosophy. It is about teaching accurate science in science classes. Creationism is about lying to children in public schools – misrepresenting science and misleading them about the current state of knowledge and the methods that our children will use to continue our nation’s technological prominence. Morality, progress, and our children’s future are powerful framing tools, and can be turned to our advantage that simply.
There’s a degree to which we have let the other side of these debates choose the framing, and in doing so we’ve let them pick their battles. The Discovery Institute keeps talking about moral philosophy, so we respond by talking about moral philosophy. It’s a mug’s game for us to promote science by arguing about religion. People know and like religion, they don’t know science (that’s the problem, remember?) and don’t especially like it (as a corollary of the first point), so setting the two in opposition just makes it easier for people to reject what they didn’t like to begin with, and to keep doing what they had been doing.
We also misframe our arguments on our own. One example of a bad framing is presenting science as if it were entirely a technical matter. Consider the example of this debate between climate scientists and climate change deniers. By the end, the audience had actually become less convinced of the scientific consensus. The arguments that have convinced the overwhelming majority of experts in the field didn’t grab the general audience. Why? One of the scientists explained:
We are scientists, and we talk about science and we’re not going start getting into questions of personal morality and wider political agendas — and obviously that put us at a sharp disadvantage.
Grist’s Dave Roberts responds:
He knows science, he’s trained in science, he’s confident in the accuracy of his scientific judgments, so that’s what he’s sticking with — even if it means losing a debate, and with it a chance to change some minds.
I think that is a huge mistake, and Gavin is far, far from the only one making it.
Refusing to address broader moral/philosophical/political issues is not a refusal to frame. There is no virtuous purpose served there. It is a choice to frame the issue badly, indeed in a way that isn’t coherent to the audience.
Empirical scientific research of public reactions to arguments show how this works. We’ll let communications consultant John Neffinger explain:
our side often doesn’t grasp the reality of how swing voters make up their minds because we can’t get past our own emotional attachment to the power of ideas. We accuse swing voters of voting capriciously, irrationally, but if we were only rational ourselves, we could easily see why they do.
In fact, unlike blinkered Democrats, in some ways swing voters are acting perfectly rationally by voting with their gut (yet another irony, if you’re still counting). For voters who don’t pay close attention to issues, it’s not easy to figure out which positions are best (not least because conservative think tanks and media do an excellent job at muddying the waters of debates democrats would otherwise win). So what can a casual voter do? Go with what they know. Every day they make judgments about people they interact with, size ’em up, trust their instincts. So they use the same method to pick a candidate.
Or, indeed, an argument about science. Part of this is raw presentation and charisma, something that is only teachable to a degree. Some of it is message choice. Frames are shortcuts; the violinist on the bus is a perfect example, people who knew classical music and musicians recognized Joshua Bell, but the general public judged the musician by the setting in which they encountered him. The framing gives the audience a way to judge the argument before deciding to invest the effort in trying to understanding the details. We all use those mental shortcuts all the time.
Framing science requires us to think about what useful context we can offer nontechnical audiences that will make them care about science and see it in a positive light. That doesn’t necessarily mean making them see it the way we see it, and it doesn’t mean being inaccurate. By framing it accurately, we make the total presentation more accurate and more precise.