Framing or explaining?: don't frame the science itself

By Grant Jacobs 11/01/2010

window1If you must frame, leave the framing for the stuff outside of the science itself.

My opinion is that framing should not be applied to describing the science itself, as science doesn’t have sides in the sense that media or public debate does, nor is it always based on ordinary experience.

The science itself ought to be explained, not framed. People might wish to frame the application of the science, but then you’re moving into politics.

This is the (ahem) “concise” version. There is a long-winded original which I may put up (to my shame) as it has some quotes and related thoughts that might appeal to some that are omitted here.

I’ve tried making sense of what Matthew Nisbet means by framing, but basically I’ve given up. I’ve yet to find an article where he describes precisely what framing is, as opposed to what he wants it to achieve.

You know those cartoon ghosts, vague blobs with a shimmering outline that moves around that can’t quite be grasped because your hands move through if you try? That’s what Nisbet’s ‘framing’ feels like to me.

It’s thoroughly annoying to be suggested to do more of something only to not be able to make out what it is that they want you to do more of.

For the sake of by-passing the impasse for few paragraphs let’s temporarily settle for:

Framing: (re)casting an argument in terms intended to appeal to a particular ideology; to (re)work an argument to “fit” a pre-held set of beliefs (an ideology).

Surely it’s a bad idea to try “recast” an idea into even a subtly different one? Audiences generally are pretty good at spotting bulls**t, and once they do you’ve set everything back several steps and you will have a hell of a job convincing them to trust you again.

window2I’d have thought it better to give it to them straight the first time around, but take care to explain (not frame) it using examples that they can understand.

To be fair Nisbet expresses similar sentiments, but the way he approaches it isn’t as strong nor seems realistically possible to me.

He asks that we frame but not distort the science.

An important concept to me is that science doesn’t have sides in the sense that media or public debate does.

As a result, it should never be framed.

(It can have sides in the sense of conflicting evidence or models.)

I would suggest a proper solution is to not the frame the science itself at all.

You might “frame” the politics the science falls within. Not that I agree with this either, but at least the science stands as it is and Nisbet’s “framing” objective is met.

I’m not sure I’m ever really going fully understand what Nisbet (or Mooney) mean by ‘framing’, so I decided to (quickly) try find my own definition.

Many sources in the internet say that the term comes from linguist George Lakoff’s examinations of political communication, which is opinion-based and couched in loaded terms (i.e. which works differently from science).

My understanding is that Lakoff was aiming at how terms/words hold within them metaphors that then “frame” a communication. He’s taking a fairly academic concept about language and extending it towards a real-world use of conveying opinion to others. From this I get:

Framing = use of words/terms to imply, without stating explicitly, a particular approach to a subject through the metaphors or “loaded meanings” those terms carry.

For example, Lakoff writes:

Language always comes with what is called ’framing.’ Every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework. If you have something like ’revolt,’ that implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or assumes it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are throwing off their rulers, which would be considered a good thing. That’s a frame. …’


The phrase “Tax relief” began coming out of the White House starting on the very day of Bush’s inauguration. It got picked up by the newspapers as if it were a neutral term, which it is not. First, you have the frame for “relief.” For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy intent on keeping the affliction going. So, add “tax” to “relief” and you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain.


window3If this is what Nisbet means by framing, he would seem to want us to couch an explanation in metaphors that “recast” the information for other audiences.

My initial response is that this is a mistake in several ways.

One is that, as I mentioned earlier, if you are even perceived as attempting to mislead, people will hold it against you.

Secondly, I can’t see how it’s even possible in the case of communicating the science itself. Framing is the use of loaded words in essence. Loading words will always change meaning. I can’t see how it’s possible to frame the science itself and have it accurate.

Another is that the essence of communicating science, to me, isn’t to try move someone’s opinion directly, nor to explain terminology, but to convey the main concepts so that people might see what the issues are. When I try explain things, I try think in terms of the concepts involved. Concepts are not opinions (what framing acts on).

Laskoff would probably argue that it’s impossible to remove words from their contexts. (Nisbet has expressed a similar point.) As a linguistic argument he’d have a point, but remember that Laskoff is interested in politics, which is about opinions and mindsets.

Science, by contrast, is about evidence and models (in the mathematical sense) and can be about things that are unintuitive or cannot be directly observed.

There’s no natural way to have an “ordinary experience-based opinion” on that sort of thing. They’re either what the evidence shows or are not. You don’t get to intuit the “right” answer. So it seems to me that “framing” isn’t going to help, or even possible, since frames à la Laskoff are about ordinary experience, emotions and what people infer from words.

My conclusion thus far is that if you must frame, leave the framing for the stuff outside of the science itself.

Other science communication posts on Code for life:

See Science writing vs. science journalism and the links at the end of the article (which give most, but not all, of the other science communication articles I’ve written)

All images in this article are sourced from wikipedia.

0 Responses to “Framing or explaining?: don't frame the science itself”

  • I should add a clarification here. I’m aware that Nisbet has said that he’s not thinking of framing in the same way as Laskoff, but if you read the Q&A he recently wrote (see his blog, linked above), the replies have echoes of Laskoff’s concepts in them, to my reading. So I presume me means this and something more (whatever that something is).

    This doesn’t change my central point. However you define framing, I can’t see that it should be applied to the science itself for the reasons I’ve given. It might (possibly) be applied to some politics that the science happens to fall within, but not the science itself. (I mean politics in the broadest sense.)

  • You probably saw that Nisbet & Mooney got totally hammered on over the framing thing – the whole idea of framing (speaking softly so people will like us?) really went down badly with that science blogging community!

  • Hard to miss 🙂

    I’ve read quite a bit on this topic over the past year or so. I’m being kind about my opinion on this, more trying to figure out where they might have been coming from and then starting over for myself (as a bit of an academic exercise and to try not be biased by the fuss) with that in mind. Doesn’t look terribly appropriate for communicating science, though… (Put more bluntly, I can’t see how it can make sense.)