Framing Embeds Values in Scientific Facts

At the Sustainability Symposium last night (which was nominally about water footprints (PDF) and this paper on the international trade in virtual water) we ended up “off topic” and talking about science communication, public outreach, and how policy gets made.  Inevitably it seems like these conversations end up coming back to the issues from Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet‘s Speaking Science workshop that SASS sponsored last summer.

There is huge discomfort for scientists in the fact that the way in which information is conveyed impacts how it is interpreted.  The idea is at odds with the scientific ideal of objective facts and communication, but nevertheless it is true.  A one liter glass plus 500 ml of water equals what?  The glass is half empty.  The glass is half full.  The glass is twice as big as necessary to hold that much water.  The same objective facts, different connotations.  Different implications.  Different frames.  And sometimes, the frame ends up being a more important determinant of the listener’s reaction than the information the speaker intended to convey.

If you can think of ten different ways to say the same thing, and you use focus groups to test the reactions that you get for those ten different framings, and you get ten different reactions, how do you choose which conceptual packaging to use?  That decision making process inevitably involves a value judgment.  You may be conveying empirical facts, and you may think that the appropriate response to those facts is obvious, but the empirical fact that many responses to the same information are possible indicates that the appropriate response is not obvious.  You have to choose which response you are trying to get, and use the corresponding framing device.  This is not lying or propagandizing, but it is making a value judgment.

Maybe you had hoped you wouldn’t have to make such subjective decisions as a scientist?  Well, tough titties, you do.  Even if you refuse to admit it, there is a value judgment embedded in the way you choose to communicate your facts and findings.  That value judgment is not a function of your response to the information, it is a function of your audience’s response.  The choice you have is not whether to have a subjective effect on the communication, it is whether do so consciously and thus increase the probability that your message is received as you hoped it would be, or unconsciously, allowing your message to be muddled by whatever response you happen to accidentally inspire.

This dynamic is not a side effect of a public that does not understand science (though that may also be true), it’s just the way humans work.  Take a scientifically literate sub-public, or even a room full of experts, and their perception of your information will still be influenced by how you convey it, so choose your framing well.

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

3 thoughts on “Framing Embeds Values in Scientific Facts”

  1. I was just thinking along these lines while casually reading some mass-audience science publication (Science Weekly or somesuch?). All of the current research reported on sounded so interesting and topical. All due to pithy writing and spin. Not even touching on the other aspects of framing, how important a finding is seen to be certainly has to do with how it is talked up in print or otherwise.
    So how do you control the framing? Do you have to take a class in it or is it more straighforward? How do you keep from being heavy-handed and putting off people? Surely there are tricks beyond a focus group study for each outreach attempt.

  2. The reading list from the workshop has a lot of good information on framing in public communication. This one page article in Science is a good concise exhortation.

    One prominent example is evolution. The frame the opposition have chosen is “teach the controversy”, painting themselves as maverick outsiders rebelling against a stifling establishment, and manufacturing the controversy if need be. The frame the ACLU and most on the side of science education have chosen is “separation of church and state”, which may well be a good legal argument, but that doesn’t mean it plays well in the court of public opinion. Atheists often focus on the now objectively false statements religions have made about our origins, and our own evolutionary origins (unsurprisingly unpersuasive to most theists…). The National Academies of Science did a study on the effects of different framings of evolution in support of the design of this brochure and found that focusing on the applications to medicine, and thus the public good, (e.g. antibiotic resistance) got a much more positive response.

    I think effective impromptu framing is mostly a question of really trying to understand who it is you’re talking to, what their point of view is, what their values are, avoiding talking down to them and avoiding trying to inform them about the science itself (unless you’re actually teaching a science class!), and more about the context of that science which is most likely to be meaningful to them. I also think that in most of the controversial areas, people have already done the focus group studies (or something like them), and all you need to do is find them.

  3. Even if you refuse to admit it, there is a value judgment embedded in the way you choose to communicate your facts and findings. That value judgment is not a function of your response to the information, it is a function of your audience’s response.

    it’s funny how sociology gets denigrated by some scientists…i remember being especially annoyed at the Speaking Science talk, when the few vocal ‘just state the facts’ folks chose to go on and on about their…rather rude frame that everyone else was ‘lying’ or ‘spinning’ things. ironic.

    i’d say there’s ALSO a personal value judgment embedded in the way you choose to communicate your facts. if you don’t think there is, and you actively avoid framing content in a way your audience can relate to, i think that’s a kind of rationalism-will-prevail-and-i’m-the-example-of-that idea going into the presentation. which is a big turn-off, especially from a someone in a position of authority.

    assuming that people just need to be better educated or more science-literate or more engaged in politics kind of ignores the fact that there are plenty of educated, science-literate, publicly-engaged people who sincerely disagree on what we should do about water quality and quantity, or carbon emissions, or transportation investments, or whatever.

    clearly more (correct) facts are not what determines a person’s take on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but values. and thinking that everyone who doesn’t interpret your results the way you do is just being irrational or ignorant is pretty heady personal judgment.

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