I’ve been skipping the framing wars lately. I think Matt Nisbet was wrong to criticize PZ Myers for talking up his expulsion from the Expelled showing in Minneapolis. I think PZ is wrong to blithely dismiss framing. I think both of those parties, and a number of other players in this persistent spat, have lost perspective, and let this turn into an extended grudge match that no one cares about.
In brief, the Expelled Expulsion undercut the Expelled framing. If the movie is all about freedom, etc., then it’s inconsistent to be censoring critics with NDAs and arbitrary expulsion of their critics. That invalidates a key part of Nisbet’s complaint. Then again, PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins are not spokesmen for science, any more than any random pair of scientists could be considered to speak for the entire enterprise. That goes double when they mix their (valid) message about the importance of science with their (legitimate but debatable) position on theology; people dig in their heels on deeply-held moral issues, including religion. To the extent that PZ or Dawkins present themselves as spokesmen, then, that is harmful to the broad goal of improving science literacy (at least in the short to medium-term), and it is fair for other scientists to criticize PZ or Dawkins on those grounds. However, in choosing to place that issue at the center of his critique of science communication, Matt should have been able to predict that people would dig in their heels, and he would have been wise to choose a different example. He has them, and uses them in discussing climate change, stem cells and evolution. His poor framing of his message has poisoned the well for others who would like to carry the banner for a new era in effective science communication.
After all, the differences between PZ and Matt pale in comparison to the differences between both men and Ben Stein. I fear they lost sight of that, and the discussion on the blogs has emphasized that divide, to the extent that creationists are citing the debate for their own nefarious purposes.
What inspires me to rework that overly-contested soil is James Hrynyshyn’s assessment of “the REAL problem with framing science”:
The problem with framing science is …
It’s either a trivial concept to which an entire academic career should not be devoted, or it’s a corrupting influence that threatens everything for which science should stand. …
ScienceBlogger Matt Nisbet, … his fellow ScienceBlogger Chris Mooney, and the essay he and Dietram Scheufele wrote in The Scientist, … define frames as “interpretative schema” that help audiences understand something. Frames “simplify complex issues by lending greater importance to certain considerations and arguments over others.”
To me, that kind of description doesn’t stray far from what any decent journalist will recognize as a successful way to tell a story. What Matt calls a frame, I would call an “angle.” This is not proverbial brain surgery or rocket science. It’s common sense.
Of course you appeal to your audience’s sensibilities. … Among the first things a journalist learns is to write for the reader/viewer/listener. You tell your reader why it is the story is important and how it will affect them. You “frame” the story according to their interests. Perhaps it is no coincidence that among 75 or so ScienceBloggers the biggest defender, aside from a communications theorist, is a journalist.
And if that’s all framing is, it’s hardly worth worrying about. If, however, framing is something more consequential (the alternative hypothesis, to use a scienfific term), if learning how to frame properly requires training and expertise, and its study is worthy of the awarding of PhDs, then what are we actually talking about?
In this context, the notion that framing can “simplify complex issues by lending greater importance to certain considerations and arguments over others” becomes less benign. …
Science does embrace simplicity over unnecessary complexity, insofar as parsimony is a useful tool. But scientists are not trained to simplify as an exercise in communications. And they are certainly not trained to emphasize certain elements of their studies at the expense of others just to suit the biases of an audience. (Well, maybe an audience that’s reviewing a grant application…) They are trained to do the precise opposite: prioritize according to genuine importance, regardless of who’s paying attention.
Indeed, the whole point of science is the pursuit of objectivity, is it not? Framing, by contrast, seems to embrace subjectivity.
And so we get a dichotomy that isn’t a dichotomy. Framing is either “a successful way to tell a story,” what journalists (and lawyers) are trained to do and what successful politicians learn to do, or it is a form of communication that scientists are not trained to undertake, a way of simplifying messages to fit a given audience.
The fact is that journalists like Hrynyshyn are trained to do what they do. There are professional academics (with Ph.Ds) who study how that works, and who teach it at places called journalism schools. When Hrynyshyn suggests that “academic career should not be devoted” to this subject, he is ignoring the fact that there already are academic careers devoted to exactly the sense of the term he regards as trivial (but which turns out not to be trivial).
Here’s something to ponder. Graduate students in the sciences rarely receive any training in effective teaching techniques, lecture preparation, curriculum development, or other forms of pedagogy. There are few if any courses offered in this country which teach Ph.D. candidates to put together an effective slideshow for a 15 minute conference talk, nor how that preparation might differ from the preparation needed for an hour-long seminar, and how that might differ from an hour-long lecture to a visiting school group, or the slideshow they’d use in one hour-long class out of 30–40 they’d deliver in a semester-long course. And even programs which do offer some of that preparation do not train or encourage students to talk to reporters about their research, or broadly about their field of study.
Journalists like Hrynyshyn spend years learning an important and tricky skill, to the point that it seems natural and obvious. Scientists spend years being “trained to do the precise opposite: prioritize according to genuine importance, regardless of who’s paying attention.” Unless it’s a funding agency, in which case you grumble and tailor to the audience, all the while feeling cheapened.
This is a problem, and it is far from trivial. The approach scientists are trained to take in communicating their work is precisely the opposite of what professional communicators are taught, and as a result, there are very few effective science communicators, and the few who exist are often ostracized for speaking out.
We should no more say “Screw the public if they can’t understand my point” than we’d say “Screw my students if they can’t understand my lecture.” If education matters, it doesn’t just fall on the students to be effective learners, the teachers have to be effective also. That insight ought to be trivial, but it doesn’t seem to sink in.