What’s in a frame.

by Jen

Every word, image, idea, impression and experience is framed by its context and the medium through which we experience it. Framing is a pretty widely understood concept, especially relevant to the study of rhetoric, but also, I believe, central to the problem of science communication. Imagine everyone walking around with two hands up, ‘framing’ their view like an artist assessing his subject matter… and to make matters worse, elbowing their way in front of others’ faces to frame their view as well. I suppose an ideal world would be one where science isn’t framed at all… as with the natural world, it’s just there. There for all to see, for everyone to take in as some kind of objective reality.

Of course, information doesn’t work like that.  Some people can’t even see the view without someone pointing where to look; others find it overwhelming or blurry. Framing is important for understanding. What’s more, information itself may be objective (up for philosophical debate, but I won’t go there), but how it’s framed is quite subjective and significantly affects the way an individual processes that information. Like those hands held up to frame a visual perspective, in some ways they obscure things, perhaps to deceive or just to aid focus. But the effects of framing are often more subtle than just directing people’s attention.

Framing the same information with different contexts

(or narratives or metaphors or even a few lines)

can make what’s being framed appear very different.

George Lakoff is pretty good at explaining frames. He’s written a lot about framing and how some people do it better than others, especially in politics. I think the same is true for science communication. His book, Don’t Think of an Elephant! is a concise guide to framing with concrete examples included. (Written for the liberal/progressive end of the spectrum of course, since it appears the opposing crowd already has this framing business figured out). I’m looking to Lakoff’s discussions on framing less for the political applications and more for the case studies that are transferable to other forms of communication. A quick explanation of framing from Lakoff himself:

As my thesis work progresses, I am definitely feeling the weight of what Dan Kahan put so eloquently in a previously discussed paper:

The science of science communication has generated critical insights about valid psychological mechanisms. Such work remains necessary and valuable. But in order for the value associated with it to be realized, social scientists must become experts on how to translate these lab models into real, useable, successful communication strategies fitted to the particulars of real-world problems.

One of the reasons I am drawing on Lakoff’s work about framing is the very concrete and specific way he discusses and ultimately recommends certain strategies. It’s also the reason I like Kahan’s work and the recent paper about Debiasing by Stephan Lewandowsky and company, (discussed earlier). I know there isn’t a road map for the design of science communication that may eventually help reach wider and less science-friendly audiences, (otherwise I wouldn’t be working on it!), but a few guidelines, ideas, or suggestions can go a long way to getting off the blocks with a strong start.

As I’m turning more attention toward the search for just such artifacts, yesterday, NPR delivered. I listened to a story about people who are making headway in the conservative arguments on climate change. In it, the author profiles Bob Inglis, who heads the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University and makes a free market case for tackling global warming, and Michele Combs, with the Christian Coalition and recently launched Young Conservatives for Energy Reform.

Both Combs and Inglis are careful not to sound alarmist. They want to reach those who may not even believe in climate change. Still, Inglis has thought long and hard about what he calls the “populist rejection” of climate science.

“For conservatives,” he says, “it’s seen as an attack on our lifestyle. You can’t live in the suburbs. You gotta give up that big car.”

He knows people don’t like to be told what to do. But Inglis remembers his dad teaching him to save gas by letting up on the pedal and coasting. He says a party that once valued thrift now touts a philosophy of “burn it up.”

“It’s not conservative to waste stuff,” Inglis says, “and to cause somebody else’s kids to go on the sands of the Middle East to fight for that stuff that we’re wasting.”

At stake, he says, is the most basic of conservative principles: whether we leave our children a place that’s pleasant and livable.

I don’t know whether Inglis has read any work on cultural worldview or narrative framing (I’m betting he has), but consciously or not he has the right idea. Dad teaching him to save? Images of ‘other people’s kids’ fighting overseas? How’s that for a ‘strict-father’ view of the world?

And one last bit about framing; Matthew Nisbet is another very well spoken expert on framing with crucial entries on my reading list. I think a discussion about framing and its role in science communication certainly can’t be concluded without a nod to Nisbet and his studies on how people respond to information. His recent article, What Carl Sagan, Brian Greene, and E.O. Wilson Understand About Effective Communication, includes the following video explanation of framing’s role in science communication.