Desperately Seeking Framing

For those breathlessly waiting for my next instalment on Framing Science, start breathing again until next week. I have to collect my thoughts and organise what I’d like to say.

This is something that has been just hopping around the edge of my activist urges forever. I just get framing. Not the marketing, spin, propaganda parts of framing, but the facts need a knowledge scaffolding kind of framing.

To misquote Steven Wright, “Who would want to know everything; where would you put it?” Framing is about building shelves and storage containers for facts.

I hear scientists continually talking about how we need to improve science education. They often use the horrible statistics about how misinformed the public is on certain facts, the earth goes around the sun, the age of the universe is 8-12 billion(1995) 12-13 billion (2001) 13.7 billion(2003) years , the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus is seriously endangered. . Bla, Bla, Bla. Facts change guys. The many bleeding edge “facts” I learned 20 years ago are simply out of date because we know more.

Scientists will respond, but we just want people to know the basic facts.

But scientists don’t worry about facts, scientists worry about hypothesis. About how the facts, how the data fits in whatever is being studied. There is fact generation in science. But textbooks aren’t filled with facts. Textbooks are filled with hypothesis and theories and how to get from here to there.

Scientist advocates would really like the public to know basic science facts. Get in line. Everyone else wants the public to know more about something – politics, comparative religion (sorry PZ), current best practices in nutrition, healthcare, taxes, and, and, and… If the anti-gun control mob get their way, we’ll probably need mandatory firearm handling training and shooting practice.

To think of modifying public opinion by adding facts will not work. There are already too many facts out there. The problem is not enough training in fact filtering. There is not enough training in understanding that science isn’t the facts, it’s the process.

Thus, I see framing at a number of different levels.

First framing is a strategy. It is about learning how to present science “fact last” while still presenting the underlying ideas. Whether the earth goes around the sun doesn’t matter to the mother of four with a screaming baby and melting ice cream in the mini-van. But being able to say, “I don’t know but I’ll find out” to the persistent six-year old future scientist and have it stick would be a major jump in the right direction.

Framing is linguistic. It is as much about transmitting knowledge as it is about avoiding verbal pitfalls and the cognitive, linguistic traps designed by the opponents of science.

Finally framing needs to become a way of life (God I am an activist, aren’t I?)

Framing is about reinforcing the message again and again and again. There is a reason why physicists-in-training do certain calculations over and over while studying physics. Because the techniques needed just don’t stick if you just hear about it once.

You develop physical neural pathways through mental repetition. Cults and kooks combine this with worship and woo to create non-rational reactions to rational arguments. Scientists and science journalists need to use the same techniques because that is how the brain works. Wishing it weren’t so doesn’t change anything; it exacerbates the problem. It is unscientific – it is woo.


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