The Global War on Framing

Wow! I go into weekend hibernation and a war breaks out. * Sigh *

With my morning coffee, I sat down and read the latest Washington Post op-ed by Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet and the rather rattling reaction by PZ Meyers.

Folks. This is not going well.

Reading Mooney and Nisbet’s op-ed does not bring meat to the issue but rather simply throws more fuel on the fire. Even though I agree with much of the op-ed, it will not bring closure to the issue it isn’t going to help much. The crux is being missed. Of the entire op-ed the only paragraph that cuts to the quick follows.

Scientists excel at research; creating knowledge is their forte. But presenting this knowledge to the public is something else altogether. It’s here that scientists and their allies are stumbling in our information-overloaded society — even as scientific information itself is being yanked to center stage in high-profile debates.

Reading Meyers reaction, it is clear to me Mooney and Nisbet are right, he doesn’t get it. But M&N don’t understand the reaction. Indeed of the people I read, Coturnix at Blog Around the Clock comes closest to trying to bridge the gap. He understands the issue from the pragmatic realist standpoint with the appropriately titled post Framers are Not Appeasers.

So, if you live in Europe or New England, your perception of the world is skewed – all those rational people around you! If you only read science and atheist blogs, you get the erroneous feel that there are many more atheists in America than there really are. Take a slow car trip through the North American continent – the middle of it. Gazillions of very nice, smart people who, due to the upbringing and the surrounding culture think that Atheist=Satan. But you want those people to push Congress to do something about global warming, don’t you?

Then think strategically how to talk to them about it. This is political battle, not a science battle or a religion battle. So stick to politics. Back it up by science only as much as needed to be understood and trusted. Starting out by telling them they are stupid makes the conversation stop before it ever started.

Trees, of AnomalousData fame goes even farther and presents the issue even better. She frames it perfectly.

Far be it from me to disagree with Prof. Myers, but on this one, I DO. Not his principles, but his interpretation of the framing agenda. As one of the potential targets of “framing”, I gotta say, it would be helpful for me. You know who argues with non-scientist anti-science types most often? Non-scientist pro-science types, that’s who. I would really welcome some good tools that would help me accurately argue with people who I encounter on a daily basis who think they “know enough” to be consumers of science, and make decisions in ignorance that they don’t even realize is ignorance. I would like a faster, better way of getting to the meat of scientific matters.

People like Meyers, Dawkins and Harris are important because they move the goal posts farther away from the center. This gives the people caught in the middle more room to manoeuvre. Much like the extreme fundementalist religious nuts have managed to draw the public religious discussion farther and farther from a centrist position, the vocal atheists are trying to present a counter balance. This doesn’t solve the problem; it does tend to even out the playing field. I really do appreciate their efforts.

PZ Meyers ends his post with a challenge. He throws down the gauntlet.

The title of the article is “Thanks for the facts. Now sell them.” I’m still waiting for an article that actually tells me how to better sell difficult ideas with a technique other than simply gagging all the atheists to appease the mob.

Alright professor. Let’s get started.

This isn’t something we will finish in one post. It’s not something you finish in 200 words but in many posts; it really needs a book. But hey, maybe I just need an agent.

The first problem is defining what framing is and what framing isn’t. Or rather trying to define a term to talk for this discussion.

In the context of what they are saying, M&N are defining a frame to be a cognitive pathway to a mental shortcut. When I say the words big sky, all kinds of things will come to mind. Wide open spaces, blue, clean air… Why does this happen? Because even if you didn’t endure Montana’s ad campaign in the mid-eighties, the sky is just— blue. That ‘fact’ is hard coded. That is a cognitive frame.

Some cognitive frames are built into the language itself. To say someone is lost in a “hailstorm of facts” or a “blizzard of information” have different feels. This is because hail is hard, we feel that the person is being injured; in a blizzard, you are more blinded than pelted – you have lost your way. Both phrases say basically the same thing but by presenting the information using different mental shortcuts, I give the same idea a different feel. I use differerent shortcuts.

You can also create cognitive frames.

For this discussion, I will use the word “Darwinism.” For most scientists, this word has either a neutral or if anything positively historical, definitive feel. It is no different than saying Newtonian. It simply defines a scientific theory, limiting the areas it is use.

Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents have slowly, selectively changed the ostensibly neutral term Darwinism into a pejorative for their audiences. Darwinists are pushing the secular idea of Darwinism to attack religion. Darwinism doesn’t mean “descent with modification,” it means the destruction of faith and family and America. Apple pie is probably on the most wanted list as well. This isn’t correct, it has nothing to do with facts, but that is the way it is. Scientists like facts and this is a fact. The problem is that even using the word to correct the speaker will reinforce the original cognitive frame. Sad. But. True.

Thus it is important to look at what we are trying to do. What are we even talking about. Is Meyers framing, the same as Coturnix’, or Trees’ or mine. Are our mental shortcuts the same thing on this issue. I doubt it.

The Rockridge Institute, a progressive think tank, has an online book about framing progressive political points, Thinking Points. Here I quote from Chapter 3 which describes framing.

Understanding frame analysis means becoming aware of one’s own mind and the minds of others. This is a big task. We were not brought up to think in terms of frames and metaphors and moral worldviews. We were brought up to believe that there is only one common sense and that it is the same for everyone. Not true. Our common sense is determined by the frames we unconsciously acquire, and one person’s common sense is another’s evil political ideology. The truths that have been discovered about the mind are not easy to fathom, especially when false views of the mind get in the way.

The discovery of frames requires a reevaluation of rationalism, a 350-year-old theory of mind that arose during the Enlightenment. We say this with great admiration for the rationalist tradition. It is rationalism, after all, that provided the foundation for our democratic system. Rationalism says it is reason that makes us human, and all human beings are equally rational. That is why we can govern ourselves and do not have o rely upon a king or a pope to govern us. And since we are equally rational, the best form of government is a democracy. So far, so good.

Here Lakoff is directly attacking the idea that facts ‘work.’ He isn’t basing his ideas on some bizarre political addenda. This is his research area – these are HIS SCIENTIFIC FACTS.

Interestingly, I suspect PZ Meyers sees the world through just this rationality-first cognitive frame. He expects the people to react rationally to rational facts. Unfortunately in a sound bite culture, the scaffolding for presenting those facts must be carefully build, bit for bit, beam by beam; It does not work to attempt to attack fallacy with facts if the listener won’t have anywhere to put them. You must frame first. That is the crusade Mooney and Nisbet are trying to start.

It is also important to understand what framing isn’t. Framing isn’t spin, framing isn’t propaganda: Here I go back to Lakoff, this time where he quotes his book Don’t Think of an Elephant,

“Spin is the manipulative use of a frame. Spin is used when something embarrassing has happened or has been said, and it’s an attempt to put an innocent frame on it—that is, to make the embarrassing occurrence sound normal or good.

Propaganda is another manipulative use of framing. Propaganda is an attempt to get the public to adopt a frame that is not true and is known not to be true, for the purpose of gaining or maintaining political control.

The reframing I am suggesting is neither spin nor propaganda. Progressives need to learn to communicate using frames that they really believe, frames that express what their moral views really are. I strongly recommend against any deceptive framing.”

Framing is building a verbal scaffolding to hold the data scientists are trying to dump. Mooney and Nesbit aren’t trying to change the science, they are trying to pave the way for a public accept the science being discovered.

Facts don’t win. That is a fallacy. Just like the Global War on Terror.

And just like the Global War on Framing needs to be.

To Be Continued…

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