Scientists Armed With Frames

I’ve just spent part of this evening pondering a commentary in the new issue of the journal Science by fellow Sciencebloggers Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet called “Framing Science.” (The paper is behind a firewall–yeck–but Matt has expounded on similar notes here.) They argue that scientists make a mistake of just trying to dump technical complexities on the public. They should be defining hot-button issues such as stem cells or global warming so as to resonate with “core values.”

As a science writer who doesn’t deal much in political reporting, I’m with them–but only up to a point, as far as I can tell. Frankly, I find framing science a bit murky. Nisbet and Mooney tell us that scientists must frame, but for what? They don’t actually say what the goal of framing is, and their implications are hard to turn into a clear picture.

They hint at different sorts of goals for different scientific issues. In the case of global warming, Mooney and Nisbet imply that scientists must frame in order to make the public accept the validity of the science. In the case of stem cells, however, the successful framing in terms of social progress led, they write, to public support of funding for research. In one case, scientists are framing for Truth, I guess, and in another they are framing for Money?

I think framing science is definitely important down at a very simple, basic level. It’s what I do when I write a lede–I try to lasso the attention of a reader. Scientists have a surprisingly hard time thinking in these terms. I guess it’s the result of spending all one’s days pondering very difficult subjects, doing intricate experiments, and writing impenetrable papers. Scientists have a tough time explaining in simple terms what they do and why they do it and why it interests them. I know–I keep asking them, and in many case they respond with odd little pauses, pregnant with surprise.

I recently ran a workshop for some science graduate students on writing for the lay audience, and many of them agreed that this was very hard for them. Part of the problem was simply getting them to use ordinary, non-scientific language. Beyond DNA and gravity, just about every scientific term in an article has to be defined as soon as it’s introduced. These science-writing basics were surprisingly hard for the students to put into practise.

I suppose more elaborate framing may be effective for scientists when they testify in front of Congress or go on talk radio, for whatever goals they decide to achieve. But if I call someone up for an interview and get a lot of buzzwords, my journalistic hackles will definitely be raised. I’ve had enough experiences with scientists who wanted to tell me what my story should be. In some cases, they clearly thought the entire piece ought to be arranged around themselves, with all evidence pointing towards their own awesome brilliance. In other cases, I got the feeling that the person on the other end of the line had visions of my article clipped to his or her next grant application. It’s my job to resist that sort of pressure and talk to a lot of experts with different ideas backed up by good research. I suspect a lot of science writers would also react suspiciously to an oncoming frame.

Certainly scientists should think about why the rest of the world ought to care about their research. Certainly they should think about how it will get sucked into the political blender (and how they might want to jump in after it). But framing doesn’t seem like quite the right response to the fact that over two-thirds of people in this country don’t know enough about science to understand a newspaper story on a scientific subject. It seems more like surrender to me. Fixing high school science education seems a better plan. Don’t let kids come out of high school without knowing that a laser emits light, not sound; without knowing about standard deviations; without knowing what a stem cell is. Fixing high school science would be a lot harder than staying on message, but it would be a lot more important.