Has Science Been Framed?

Photo of Albert Einstein in frame

How do you like your science news? Rich with details? Short and snappy? Visually engrossing like an episode of Nature? Or dense with text and formulas?

These are not idle questions to scientists and people like me who write about biomedical scientists and their work. Everything from continued research funding to which textbooks local school districts buy depends on getting the answers right for each different audience we try to reach.

Toss in the questionable actions of those who influence opinions by misrepresenting science, and you can see how complicated the picture can become. Worse, it is not just one picture we're dealing with here.

We all have our own picture of biomedical science that we carry around in our heads.

Science is fun. It's hard. It's interesting. It's boring. It's cool. It's tedious. It's irrelevant. Or wake me up when you find a real cure for cancer.

A second layer — call it a value prism, a network of reference points, a perceptual screen or even a belief system — further bends and shapes what you hear and tags it as true or false.

In a crudely simple example, a person who does not believe in evolution will not be swayed by Darwinian logic. The anti-evolutionist operates in a particular "frame" of reference that selectively hears, welcomes or rejects information that fits inside the frame. Call it the "scientific uncertainty" frame.

The fierce Darwinist, on the other hand, operates in a completely different frame and cannot — or will not — consider why marshaling and presenting "irrefutable" details aren't enough.

No wonder that with all the talk about science, no one seems to be listening, or at least listening to the same things.

That's why the current debate over whether scientists should — or should not — try to frame their messages to make them more relevant is devouring so much bandwidth in cyberspace.

Framing, as authors Matthew C. Nisbet and Chris Mooney wrote in the April 6, 2007, edition of Science, makes information "relevant to different audiences. Some in the scientific community have been receptive to this message. However, many scientists retain the well-intentioned belief that, if laypeople better understood technical complexities from news coverage, their viewpoints would be more like scientists', and controversy would subside."

The authors respectfully argue that "scientists should strategically avoid emphasizing the technical details of science when trying to defend it."

Evolutionists, for example, should "define evolution as a building block for medical advances." This is the "social progress" frame.

Word play aside, I think Nisbet and Mooney's defending-science frame is what has riled up so many. Consider this blog post:

"I agree with my colleagues who have noted that it is wrong for scientists to suck up to the media or the public in any way that compromises the scientific framework for thinking about the natural world. I disagree with assertions that on the whole, casting false pearls before real swine is OK."

Or this one, which distinguishes the packaging of science that goes on in the classroom, or in research project summaries for grant reviewers, from the "more-slick-than-accurate PR job for the general public."

"Within science there are error-correcting mechanisms through which the spin, hype and other sins can be criticized... What comparable checks and balances exist in television, magazines, pulpits and the other avenues through which science is disseminated? See, this is where I put on my physicist hat and say all this talk about framin' is just that: talk. It's sociological blah-dee-dah."

Others accept that Nisbet and Mooney have a point, even if in doing so, they also accept that the public is "depressingly scientifically illiterate."

Sad to say, the decline in the number of science writers and reporters might make the entire media framing argument moot. With less and less reporting about science, the public's illiteracy will not be challenged, and attitudes about important national and international issues — from stem cell research to climate change — will be influenced most by dissemblers, flakes and flacks.

That presumes, of course, that while scientists fret and feud about framing, the battle will be lost. Let's just say that I have too much faith in scientists to think that will happen. They are an engaging, dedicated lot and if they are ambitious or too single-minded, well, we all can benefit from their drive to succeed. That's my frame and I'm hanging with it.

Image based on "Framed" photo, used under the terms of its Creative Commons license.

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Related Links

Science and Society: Framing Science
Science 316(5821):56, April 6, 2007
Scientists Must Improve Communication Tactics, Science Article Proclaims
Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, April 5, 2007
Framing Frames in the Service of Science
Greg Laden Blog, April 9, 2007
Fear of the Frame
Respectful Insolence Blog (ScienceBlogs), April 8, 2007
The Ranks Ebb Further: Columbus Dispatch Science Writer Steps Down…While There’s Time
Knight Science Journalism Tracker