Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Standing on the shoulders of disciplinary dwarves? A note on the reactions to Nisbet and Mooney

The recent debates over the Nisbet and Mooney Policy piece in Science again highlight the key problem we have in the broader field of science communication. Most of the criticism of the Science piece comes down to a somewhat dysfunctional academic struggle between different disciplines and subfields claiming ownership over a larger construct – in this case framing. What many of the most vocal critics on various blogs (e.g., here, here, and here) seem to miss, however, is the fact that framing is a construct that has developed across disciplines and across levels of analysis.

Sociologists see frames of references as macro constructs with broad socio-cultural impacts. Linguists focus on the cognitive aspects surrounding semantics and our understanding of language. And Daniel Kahneman's Nobel Prize-winning work in economics and psychology taps individual-level reactions to very specific frame manipulations in the area of risk perception and consumer behavior. For the last 25 years, research in political science, communication, and sociology has been tying together some of these ideas and building a macroscopic theoretical framework, linking theories of individual-level decision making to larger-scale social, cultural and political dynamics. A piece I wrote back in 1999 in Journal of Communication summarizes some of these developments. Understanding framing, therefore, means standing on the shoulders of giants from different disciplines, to borrow from Robert K. Merton one more time, and understanding the dynamics explained by the concept of framing at different levels of analysis.

Dynamics of Framing

(From: Scheufele, D. A. (forthcoming). Framing theory. In W. Donsbach (Ed.), The international encyclopedia of communication. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.)

And this is what Nisbet and Mooney are arguing. More importantly, they make recommendations for applying these empirical findings from different disciplines to a specific context, i.e., science communication that reaches broad cross-sections of the public rather than scientifically-interested elites or issue publics. And they distill useful lessons for both scientists and science communicators. Ironically, many of their online critics don't address that central part of Nisbet and Mooney's argument. Instead, their responses focus on terminological disagreements or disciplinary turf battles that are largely irrelevant to the point Nisbet and Mooney are making. And that is the trap that is so easy to fall into when communicating about scientific research. We are talking to each other, using words and distinctions that most of the public does not care about and that sometimes, unfortunately, miss the larger point altogether. And then we're surprised if nobody pays attention.


Greg Laden said...

Interesting points, but I think you've read the debate wrong. The discussion of the different historical aspects of framing is a side show. It's a side show that I started, and for particular reasons, and you can find out the what and why of all of that by reading my posts on it.

The majority of criticism that has developed, however, is not about this. It is about concern over framing ... as described by the authors, and as understood to varying degrees by different commentors ... being a form of either appeasment or intellectual dishonesty (or if not intellectual dishonesty, at least, a practice of generating constructs that are put forward as what we are thinking when it is not really what we are thinking).

That is the area that needs to be addressed, not the history of the framing concept so much. I'd love to hear your opinions on that.

PonderingFool said...

You are making a strawman argument as Greg pointed out. The main issue I have with Nisbet and Mooney is what they have said. It does strike me as to naive as to how the system of science works. Those in the sciences are not selected for their ability to teach, to really communicate effectively to those outside their discipline. The process of becoming a faculty member at a research university in the US actually selects out those that would in all probability would be best for doing that.

This in turn makes Nisbet & Mooney's call for better framing to tackle issues in the current election cycle because revolutionary change takes time eyebrow raising. What scientists have the time to do this? Those that have endured the system best suited for this task are already the ones who do more than their fair share in departments. Research universities are not going to spend resources on framing. It is not going to maximize benefits in the here and now. Most places are trying to cut back on services while extracting the same overhead from grants.

Then there is Nisbet's comment on his blog:
"That's the power and influence of framing when it resonates with an individual's social identity. It plays on human nature by allowing a citizen to make up their minds in the absence of knowledge, and importantly, to articulate an opinion. It's definitely not the scientific or democratic ideal, but it's how things work in society."

That is not going to help science in the intermediate to long term. It is actually enabling a mindset that is the antithesis of science. How is that good for science? We are living that culture now. That is how we got into this mess to start with. Feeding it is not an acceptable option.

I have no doubt of your field's research on framing in such a manner. I am sure it is effective but is that the society we want to live in? Shouldn't we aim for more? Try harder instead of taking the easy road? Especially when you consider the "easy road" is not as easy as Mooney and Nisbet are suggesting. The way science is set up and who gets selected/encouraged to stay in science is a huge obstacle for achieving what Nisbet and Mooney propose especially in the short term.

Dano said...

Reflect on the Swiftboat-style pushback on Al Gore and Janes Hansen. Why? Because they frame the issue effectively.

The dust-up and associated...framing...of the framing issue is IMHO a discussion about how to direction society. Vested interests have been successful for years at framing the issue, their techniques are now being used, and thus the consternation.

Just a thought.



steppen wolf said...

Apparently, I am not the only one who noted how the opposition to framing focused on 1) terminological issues and 2) the understanding of framing as spin.

Frames are a model used in communication studies to try and explain how people interpret information, and also to explain why sometimes the information itself seems to be irrelevant to the final opinion people have of an issue.

That is because the same facts, when presented from different point of views (because that is really what cultural, political, religious etc influences create - a point of view) generate different reactions from different people. Framing theory explains how how people process information; and a better understanding of that process can help us make communication more efficient.

The process of framing information is then a tool: just like a gun, a tool is not moral/immoral on its own. A tool is also built in a way to exploit the way people already work.

Let me make a (maybe over-simplistic) example: take a gun. A gun is built to fit in a human hand, and to work best when the human hand has a certain size. The tool is built for the user, not the other way round: so framing is useful and used because people already respond to framing - it is, forgive me the words, in our nature. Also, a gun is neither "bad" nor "good": the same gun, in the hand of a police officer, will be serving different ideals than in the hands of a criminal. However, remember: the gun is there in the first place because ... it works, i.e. people are killed by guns and guns have been built to be used by human hands.

It is up to us to make sure the use of this tool is regulated, and that its use (no matter in whose hands) is ethical. Scientists/science communicators can use framing as a short terms tool, making sure they use framing to also make people understand the importance of spending in science education, and show them that science can be exciting, and that it effectively changes lives over time.

What we use the frame for is what we should discuss, not whether frames should be used at all. Chances are, when presenting a talk, speaking at a lab meeting, or speaking to undergrads during teaching, we are already framing whatever we say - and that does not make us liers, "spin doctors", or immoral people.

steppen wolf said...

I have just written a blog post on the framing debate, and included quotes from your latest JoC paper. Just wanted to let you know.
Here is the link to the post.