If you've been anywhere near Scienceblogs this weekend, you can't have missed at least some of the heat generated by a little policy article on Framing Science in the latest issue of Science by Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet, both of whom are part of the scienceblogs collective. Much has been said already so you'd think there is little left to add, but, the topic of communicating science and changing public discourse on environmental issues is something that has been coming up with some frequency in our classroom discussions in Reconciliation Ecology. So bear with me as I offer my take in what has turned into a rather long essay, below the fold.
Communicating science to the lay voting public is a hot-button issue here in the US, especially under the current administration and right-wing conservative political ascendancy in recent decades. American science, despite its size (which remains substantial in terms of number of scientists or academic institutions of science, or dollars spent on it), feels besieged, and is increasingly afraid of losing ground to other countries in important cutting edge areas such as stem-cell research, or technologies to combat global climate change. Indeed, in the political arena, science has already lost considerable ground, well documented by Mooney in his book.
And this has happened within a larger context of the entire US political spectrum shifting rightwards in recent decades, which has led to even greater alarm, soul-searching, and hand-wringing among progressive left/liberal political circles - especially given the results of the last two presidential elections. Among the many potential causes behind the liberal left losing political ground to right-wing religious conservatives, one that seems to have resonated most in this media-saturated age is the linguist George Lakoff's analysis highlighting how liberals and conservatives think about values, and how Republicans have successfully hijacked the public agenda by their cunning use of language in framing political issues. As a result Lakoff has, according to his publisher, "emerged as one of the leading progressive voices on the importance of language, the framing of political issues, and how to best define and communicate about values".
Now I haven't managed to read more than excerpts of Lakoff's work, and what little I've read (both by and about the framing frame) always left me wondering if this wasn't a rather superficial analysis, especially as it led to the conclusion that all (or at least the most important immediate thing) progressives have to do is tweak or spin their message according to the audience - manipulate the audience, in other words - to win political victories. Republicans have apparently succeeded in doing so, so why not Democrats as well? It seems that more and more Democrats and progressives are buying into this notion of "all we have to do is change how we communicate our message to invoke the appropriate frames in the voters' minds and they will flock to our side" leaving me wondering who it is that is going to address underlying socioeconomic structural variables (where the existing frames come from, surely) that to me seem far more important to change in the long-run; and that used to be the things that the left used to really worry about before we got caught up in media battles and analyses (I'll get back to this at the end of this essay). But what do I know, right? I'm just a naive ecologist, a non-resident alien no less, with no political savvy (especially about the US political system), so I must be missing some deeper point, I told myself. After all, Lakoff's ideas have influenced liberal and progressive leaders, such as Howard Dean, Barack Obama, and John Kerry, and he has appeared on television and radio programs, such as "Now" and "All Things Considered." (again according to his publisher).
Given that context, my eyebrows went up when I saw the debate in the science blogosphere this weekend over the issue of "framing" in science communication (my domain!), stirred up by the Mooney & Nisbet article. Communicating science is something I do really care and worry about, both as a practicing scientist who has to communicate among peers (to share my discoveries and to attract funding to sustain my work), and as an educator teaching undergraduate and graduate students how to understand, conduct, and apply science in my domains of ecology, evolutionary biology, and biodiversity conservation. And of course, teaching evolution and conservation in a red part of a blue state (not to mention having a child start elementary school here) has made me particularly sensitive to the issue of communicating the basic science to the larger public. So I rushed to read the article, really hoping for some useful new insights / tools from experts in communication to help me do a better job getting the message through.
Ironically, an article about communicating science more effectively to the general public is itself hidden from said public behind Science's pay-per-view / subscription firewall, so you need a subscription, or institutional access to be able to read it. I had to go through back-channels at another institution from my past to get it, since our library does not have online access, and was closed this weekend (presumably because its academic patrons were all expected to be busy looking for rabbits laying colorful eggs all over the place... or some such, but I digress). You might obtain a copy by emailing the authors (or me) - but I'm not sure its worth the effort. Having read the piece, I have to agree with Greg Laden that it is a wasted opportunity - very disappointing. Rather than go over the article again myself, I'll just let Greg explain why the Framing Science "paper" is deeply flawed.
Even as someone not at all familiar with Goffman's Frame Analysis and Frame Shift Theory (which seem to be the source of all the recent "framing" discussions), I didn't find anything in the article I didn't already know. If you want to learn about the concept and its application to science communication, you'll be better off reading the commentaries by Greg and Coturnix than the original article itself. Pity!
My initial reaction, therefore, was similar to PZ Myers' and Larry Moran's: do we really need more people from the media telling us scientists it is all our fault that we cannot convey complex scientific information to the largely uninterested lay public in the 15-second soundbites some of us are sometimes allowed in the popular media? And aren't we all already using context-sensitive language (i.e., framing) to communicate our science to different audiences in our daily work (teaching, writing research papers, grant proposals, and sometimes popular writing/public speaking)? Moreover, as PZ brilliantly asks, isn't it our job to shatter the frame sometimes? PZ and Moran have a better way with words than me, so go read their blogs (and not just for their critique of "framing" but, seriously, make their blogs part of your regular reading if you want your frames shaken once in a while!) I do have to take issue with PZ's second piece on the topic, however, where he seems to think that just because we professors are required to get up and communicate science in front of a (mostly unmotivated) student audience on a daily basis, we must already be good at it, and don't really need lectures from media experts on better communication. I guess PZ's experience may be different from mine on this one (and he is likely a far better lecturer than I am if his writing is anything to go by), but I could bore you with quite a few tales of science teachers/professors who put me to sleep in science class, and nearly turned me off science in the course of my own education (and I hope none of my students are eager to share any similar stories about me!). Instead, let me just point you to the video of EO Wilson's lecture when accepting the TED 2007 prize recently. Not exactly scintillating. And yet, he is one of the leading conservation biologists to have adopted a frame-shift with his most recent work exhorting evangelical christians to be better stewards of the environment and biodiversity - doing exactly what Mooney & Nisbet would have us all do. I'd say the jury is out on how successful that strategy is, and we'll have to wait to see how many of the evangelicals stop preparing for the rapture and address the immediate problems of biodiversity conservation from having their "stewardship" frames evoked by Prof. Wilson.
I have several additional observations about this topic - points I've found missing from most of the blogosphere discussion I've come across:
1. The article's focus is primarily on the political scene in the US, so it is curious that it appears as a significant policy-focus piece in one of the top global science journals! Larry Moran brings this up and asks why he should be worried about "framing" in Canada when he doesn't have to deal with creationists nor climate-change deniers on a regular basis. Lucky him! But I want to ask to what extent does the issue exist outside the US? On climate change, as the latest IPCC reports again indicate, the US is a significant outlier in terms of the consensus on the human role as drivers. Likewise, on evolution, the US trails most of the developed world in public acceptance. So do scientists and science communicators have to worry about other frames in those countries? What about the frames for science in the developing world, or, especially, in Islamic nations?
2. I also think the problems for science communication in the US are partly a product of its peculiar anti-intellectualism, which has been well exploited by politicians in the media. As a science nerd from India, where being a nerd in school was seldom a disadvantage (I hope that hasn't changed under recent globalization), I've always been puzzled (and disappointed) by the low social status of nerds in this country. Why does a society with such a leadership position and heavy investment in (not to mention dependence upon) science and technology have such a deep mistrust of science and scientists? Is that also merely about "framing"? I suspect the answer is not that simple, but would appreciate it if someone cares to fill me in on this.
3. In one of the better-framed commentaries on this weekend's debate, John Wilkins refers tangentially to how, in the 1970s, science itself lost its authority and began to be treated as equivalent to personal opinion some time in the 1970s, with the New Left movement. I think that the left actually did far more damage with this post-modernist relativism than just demoting scientific truth to the status of personal opinion (which is a serious enough problem). I think the right-wing conservatives in the US have made far more effective use of this relativism than the left has, especially in the context of the culture war waged by religious conservatives against rationality and Enlightenment values. Isn't the "teach the controversy" strategy (or frame), so successful in both the evolution vs. intelligent design and the global warming "debates", a reflection of this? Isn't ID's wedge doctrine exploiting the same relativism?
Given how much damage post-modernist relativism - that great gift to the left from social scientists - has done to science and the rational investigation of reality, isn't it appropriate for scientists (and dwellers of the reality-based community) to be cautious and skeptical about yet another bandwagon the liberal-left appears to be on now - this business about framing? Pardon me if I don't jump on it quite yet.
4. Which brings me to my final, and hopefully deeper, point: that all this analysis of framing in political/scientific communication remains superficial, focusing as it does on language, but it doesn't really appear to address the underlying structural problems of this society, the ones that really have put us in the pickle we find ourselves in. Several of this weekend's commentaries recognize this, of course, with Coturnix in particular making a clear statement of the short-term and long-term meanings of framing. And pretty much everyone agrees on the need to make long-term changes in science education to prepare a better public - one with better mental frames to understand and appreciate scientific knowledge. Many are even on-board with PZ's goal of shattering frames for longer-term benefit.
While this is great, and we all might agree on a program of both long-term and short-term "framing" to improve the status of science in society, I haven't seen much discussion of the socioeconomic / cultural roots of today's dominant frames. Even the oft-repeated observation that Republicans are more successful politically because they use language better to "frame" issues in their favor seems to me (and I remind you I haven't read Lakoff much nor the larger literature on Frame Analysis) to forget the fact that they actually spent several decades actively and quietly building the social/cultural foundations for today's dominant conservative / religious frames. Republican pundits and media advisors today are able to focus mostly on language because they can rely on all the hard work (the church groups, the direct mail, the home-schooling movement, not to mention the Washington and Seattle think-tanks, ownership of mainstream media networks, etc.) that went into building those frames in the first place! There is a socio-economic-cultural-religious foundation to these frames, people, that the right-wing has spent a long-time building, and that will take a lot more work to break down, than all the "framing" we might do to gain some short-term political advantage for some current legislation or election!!
In fact, I worry that this short-term framing may actually backfire (did already backfire in the 2004 election?) because when we focus on changing the language of our message, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the charge that we are the Orwellian ones, attempting to manipulate the public for our secret agendas. We are letting them set the terms of every debate here, by buying into their frames. Won't the republicans, who know their dominant frames inside and out, because they built them, have an easier time convincing their voters that democrats and liberals with their new-fangled frame-resonating keywords are actually flip-floppers out to fool people for their selfish political gain? (Witness the difficulty even the top three Repulican presidential contenders for 2008 are currently facing in framing themselves to retain much of Bush's loyal right-wing constituency.) I sense a trap, almost, and urge caution with framing in the short term even if you want to do it. In other words, I think I understand the short-term perspective on framing, but worry greatly that it won't work, but will come back to bite us (the left) in the behind just like relativism did.
As for myself, I'd much rather engage in shattering the existing frames, even going after their foundations, in a broader, deeper, and longer-term effort to build true progressive alternatives. That's the discussion I want to have; that's the level of communication I want to engage in; not merely whether I can fool some religious fundamentalist into supporting stem-cell research by using the right language! So yes, this article in Science is indeed a lost opportunity. But I suppose the broader discussion it has generated is beginning to make up for that, isn't it?