Thursday, August 30, 2007

Framing the debate about science communication around false dichotomies

The debate over new approaches to science communication continues with a series of letters in SCIENCE magazine. Most of them, unfortunately, argue one side of the issue or another, i.e., they frame the debate as an artificial choice between conveying information and framing. A good example, is the first letter by Ohio State Assistant Vice President for Research Communications Earle M. Holland:

"I would hope that researchers continue to rely on their data, rather than on what “spin” on an issue might prove more convincing."

(Click here for the complete set of letters in SCIENCE.)
Framing, of course, has nothing to with spinning non-information. Rather, as the Nobel Prize-winning work by Daniel Kahneman shows (see nanopublic post from April 6, 2007), framing deals with how the presentation of ambiguous stimuli influences audience interpretations. The question is not if we should frame or not. All messages are framed somehow. The question is how we can do a better job of presenting scientific facts, i.e., information that the vast majority of the population sees as ambiguous stimuli, to use Kahneman's language.

For more background, see:

Scheufele, D. A., & Tewksbury, D. (2007). Framing, agenda-setting, and priming: The evolution of three media effects models. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 9-20.

... and also a piece that Matthew C. Nisbet and I have forthcoming in The Scientist where we discuss some of the debates and their scientific merits in greater detail.


Gaythia Weis said...

I’d take issue with your statement that “Framing, of course, has nothing to with spinning non-information”. Non information has already been spun. How scientific information can be appropriately presented to the general public has a lot to do with knowing their current level of understanding.

For example, current media references to the mine disaster in Utah frequently refer to “seismic bumps” for events which traditionally have been called “mine cave-ins”. This is likely to affect public understanding not only of mine safety, but of seismology as well.