Archive for the ‘Framing 101’ Category

Source: Agencies

While I read Al Jazeera every morning, I really don’t expect much in the way of new news. I get something far more important though: I find out how people in the Middle East might be interpreting US and international events.

I also see a lot of stories that would have passed under my radar.

Today, Al Jazeera posted a blurb about the two US marines cleared in the shooting deaths of 24 people in Haditha.

What actually struck me though, was neither the fact that this got a significant place on the premier Middle East news site nor the fact that neither McClatchy, the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor nor even the International Herald Tribune chose to headline the piece.

The NYT does have both the AP and the Reuters articles up. Only the Washington Post gave it a small link on the front page but the story was fairly detailed. From the Reuters piece,

A U.S. Marine general dropped all charges on Thursday against two Marines in the shooting deaths of 24 civilians in Haditha, scene of what Iraqi witnesses said was a massacre by American troops.

The dismissal of charges means neither Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt nor Capt. Randy Stone will face a court-martial in connection with the events at Haditha, which have brought international condemnation of U.S. troops.

Five Marines still face charges in the November 19, 2005, shooting of two dozen unarmed men, women and children in Haditha, which prosecutors say came in retaliation for the death of a beloved comrade, Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, who was cut in half by a roadside bomb.

Sharratt, 22, had been charged with three counts of premeditated murder and Stone, 35, with dereliction of duty for failing to properly report the civilian deaths.

Defense attorneys conceded civilians were killed at Haditha but said they died during chaotic fighting with insurgents after the roadside blast.

What only becomes clear from the WP piece is that Sharratt was involved in a shooting that happened several hours later,

The finding by Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, exonerates Justin L. Sharratt, 22, of Canonsburg, Pa. In a two-page document, Mattis not only cleared Sharratt of legal charges but also called him “innocent” in the general’s eyes. The dismissal came after an investigating officer found that Sharratt acted appropriately when he shot a group of armed men while searching a house in Haditha hours after other members of his unit killed numerous women and children in an alleged killing spree through two other houses. [my emphasis]

What I find far more interesting than the news of the soldiers, was the spin Al Jazeera put on story.

The fact that the attorney, who was new, inexperienced and probably more than a little gung ho, didn’t get court martialed for investigating is understandable if debatable. The fact that Sharratt didn’t get in trouble for a completely different shooting also makes sense. These two facts show why it was a non-story to western news agencies.

Ah. But Al Jazeera is different. They presented an edited version of the Reuters story missing the fourth paragraph talking about what the people were accused of and without any mention of a separate encounter (admittedly missing from the Reuters narrative). This gives the impression that both men took part in the civilian shootings.

Then again. Al Jazerra doesn’t even reference the source directly on the website. I have only seen them use the subscript “Source: Agencies” to identify where the information came from. Even if the story has been taken from a single article or “Agency”. It makes a nice trick to distance itself from the Western tainted news sources.

Again I think it is less important to understand the story and more important to understand how the story has been presented.

Spin is spin and every little bit creates more and more momentum towards building attitudes. If you don’t watch the spin, you don’t understand the motives.

Of course the same goes for the US sources. Which paragraphs got deleted in your newspaper?

He Said She Said

Chinese WhispersRebecca Watson, Skepchick and amazingly cool writer, has made to round three in NPR’s contest looking for a new radio talent. (hat tip: Phil Plait, congratulations and good luck Rebecca on the contest and a quick nudge to geeky web comic XKCD , the focus of Rebecca’s most recent interview.)

But a quote stuck in my mind after listening to her most recent entry. She is being interviewed by one of the local radio personalities. The first question is very appropriate.

David Bowery(?): Give me an example of something or someone you believe in.

Rebecca Watson: Wow. That’s an interesting question because I’m often accussed of not believing in anything. That’s just my thing. I’m always questioning.

I believe…I believe in science. I believe in logic and I believe in reality. I believe in – I believe in a certain point of view were you can look at the world for what it actually is as opposed to what you want it to be. And you can explore the world and see the beauty in it with that kind of perspective.

While I would love to agree with this, I am starting to doubt that people work that way. More and more books are being written about cognitive dissonance, two people seeing the same thing but interpreting the event or “reality” completely differently. As a matter of fact, that very idea is a central theme in Daniel Gilbert’s wonderful book Stumbling on Happiness.

I got yet another example of this while reading the right wing blog Capitan’s Quarters this morning.

Conservative blogs have been attacking a series of extremely negative reports in the New Republic, reportedly written by a soldier in Iraq. The issue got so far out of control that the previously anonymous blogger outted himself and his unit. The Army started investigating; conservative bloggers smelled blood.

This is how conservative blogger Ed Morrissey begins the entry describing the New York Times article.

Despite the oddly-worded non-denial denial from the New Republic yesterday, the Army did determine that allegations made in its magazine by Scott Beauchamp were false. The New York Times reports this morning that their investigation showed no substantiation for Beauchamp’s stories of petty mischief and ghoulish behavior on the part of his fellow soldiers.

An Army investigation into the Baghdad Diarist, a soldier in Iraq who wrote anonymous columns for The New Republic, has concluded that the sometimes shockingly cruel reports were false.

We are not going into the details of the investigation,” Maj. Steven F. Lamb, deputy public affairs officer in Baghdad, wrote in an e-mail message. “The allegations are false, his platoon and company were interviewed, and no one could substantiate the claims he made.” … [ellipsis in original post]

Yesterday, The New Republic posted another note on its Web site saying its editors had spoken to Major Lamb and asked whether Private Beauchamp had indeed signed a statement admitting to fabrications. “He told us, ‘I have no knowledge of that.’ He added, ‘If someone is speaking anonymously [to The Weekly Standard], they are on their own.’ When we pressed Lamb for details on the Army investigation, he told us, ‘We don’t go into the details of how we conduct our investigations.’

That the Army would deny the accusations doesn’t really surprise me much. The Army also gave a medal to Pat Tillman for bravery under enemy fire. They then denied any problem with the story, but piece by piece the truth emerged over the last months, morphing from enemy combatants, friendly fire to what might now be murder. (The last, a claim I doubt. But who can tell any more?)

Anyway. For Morrissey it is enough that the Army is denying everything and the NYT has backed him up. Right?

I don’t see that tone in the article. I give you the three paragraphs just after the ellipsis Morrissey so cleverly inserted for his readers.

The brief statement, however, left many questions unanswered. Just last week The New Republic published on its Web site the results of its own investigation, stating that five members of the same company as Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp, who had written the anonymous pieces, “all corroborated Beauchamp’s anecdotes, which they witnessed or, in the case of one soldier, heard about contemporaneously. (All of the soldiers we interviewed who had first-hand knowledge of the episodes requested anonymity.)”

Private Beauchamp had revealed his identity after The Weekly Standard online and conservative bloggers expressed doubts about their veracity. As the Baghdad Diarist, he wrote that one soldier had jokingly worn the remnant of a child’s skull on his head. In another issue, he said he and a soldier had mocked a terribly disfigured woman sitting near them in the mess tent. Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic said that after Private Beauchamp revealed his identity, the Army severely curtailed his telephone and e-mail privileges.

Private Beauchamp is married to a reporter-researcher at the magazine, Elspeth Reeve. [my emphasis]

Thus it seems to be my understanding of the English language posed against Ed Morrissey’s description of what was said in the Grey Lady. It’s a case of he said she said.

My problem is I think he did read the story as confirmation of his (and Michelle Malkin’s) ideas.

The Washington Post also has a much longer article describing the whole teacup tempest. They end their coverage with the following quote,

Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at George Washington University, called the Army’s refusal to release its report “suspect,” adding: “There is a cloud over the New Republic, but there’s one hanging over the Army, as well. Each investigated this and cleared themselves, but they both have vested interests.”

As far as I can tell, the Army solved the problem by ordering the soldier to sit down and shut up. Whether he was describing reality wasn’t important. The conservative bloggers and the Weekly Standard chose to continue the attacks and say – see he’s not saying anything any more – thus Private Beauchamp was lying. It’s not like the Army might have busted him for violating OPSec regulations when he named his unit and then put him under extreme presure. The Army wouldn’t do that; would they?

That’s all in the eye’s of the beholder. Or if you don’t follow the links, he said, she said, they said, he said, they did…

Want to know what I say? Rebecca – there is no reality. *sigh*

Evolution is not just a theory!

Evolution is not just a theory.

Pass the word! Digg it! Memorize the arguments!

That is all.

(Hat tip: Phil Plait/Bad Astronomy)

Sometimes Think-Tanks Should Rethink

The right-wing think-tank, The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, has put up a study showing the relationship between longevity and “medical innovation” defined as the overall age of drugs being prescribed.

Siting a study prepared by Frank R. Lichtenberg from Columbia University and the National Bureau of Economic Research, the study shows that, surprise, new drugs do increase life expectancy.

Lichtenberg then set out to examine why this “longevity increase gap” exists by measuring the impact of several factors that researchers agree could affect life expectancy. He found that, although some obvious suspects—obesity, smoking, and the incidence of HIV/AIDS—played a role, the most important factor was “medical innovation.”

Specifically, Lichtenberg found that longevity increased the most in those states where access to newer drugs—measured by mean “vintage” (FDA approval year)—in Medicaid and Medicare programs has increased the most. In fact, about two-thirds of the potential increase in longevity—the longevity increase that would have occurred if obesity, income, and other factors had not changed—is attributable to the use of newer drugs. According to his calculations, for every year increase in drug vintage there is about a two-month gain in life expectancy. These represent important findings given the fact that the costs of prescription drugs continue to receive a great deal of attention in the ongoing debate over health-care policy, while their benefits are often overlooked.

Lichtenberg also estimated impacts on productivity and per-capita medical expenditure. He concluded that states adopting medical innovations more rapidly had faster labor productivity growth, conditional on income growth and other factors, perhaps due to reduced absenteeism from chronic medical ailments. He also found that states that use newer drugs did not experience above-average increases in overall medical expenditure, which contradicts the common perception that advances in medical technology inevitably result in increased health-care spending.

I would expect this to be a bit of propaganda attempting to show that big pharma isn’t the global evil everyone seems to think it is. Pharma companies are good and only have your best interests (and sex lives) at heart. Profits? Banish the thought!
But hey, since the graphics the institute put up were a bit dull, I thought I’d go in and do a little paint by numbers.

The paper has two main tables. The first shows the states ranked by life expectancy. I simply colored the chart according to the way the states voted in the 2004 presidential election.

US States Ranked By Life Expectancy

The second table shows increase life expectancy. Here the coloring was a little easier.

US States Ranked by Increase In Life Expectancy

Interestingly, as far as I can tell the measurement being used is the vintage of drugs supplied by Medicare and Medicaid. Strange that there would seem to be that big a difference in how federal programs are being operated at the state and local level. Perhaps all those who decry the evils of Medicare shouldn’t look at the evil heartless Federal Government and spend more time looking a little closer to home at how the federal guidelines are implemented.

But it would also seem to me, that those think-tanks fighting the good fight for Republican values shouldn’t use studies showing how much better life is in Democratic states.

I guess I think they should have rethought their article.

Creationist Poll Dancing

Monday’s Gallup poll has gotten some attention lately.

PZ Myers and Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist and author of I Sold My Soul on eBay, both weighted in on the issue. People seem very surprised at the fact that a majority of Republicans support the creationist viewpoint. Actually this was to be expected and any other result would have been the earth-shattering bloggable result.

The first thing I would point out is that the majority of Americans do believe in evolution, even if the graphs being tossed about on Pharyngula and FA don’t seem to show it.

This is my graph of the Gallup data reformatted to highlight the belief in evolution over time.


Note: “Present Form” corresponds to the Gallup answer “God created man in present form.“ These numbers are roughly equivalent to the answers found when you look at the belief in the literal six-day creation story (35% in 2006 according to a Pew Research poll) and other indicators of fundamentalist religious tendencies.

There are a couple of comments you can make here. First, it is getting better. Not quickly, but it is getting better. If you consider that a belief in God will almost require dropping into either the creationist camp or into some kind of theistic evolutionary theory, the results aren’t too surprising. Also, depending on how the questions are phrased, the relative percentages within the evolution camp can shift significantly.

Perhaps far more surprising is the following result from the Gallup poll.

It might seem contradictory to believe that humans were created in their present form at one time within the past 10,000 years and at the same time believe that humans developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. But, based on an analysis of the two side-by-side questions asked this month about evolution and creationism, it appears that a substantial number of Americans hold these conflicting views.

  • 24% of Americans believe that both the theory of evolution and the theory of creationism are probably or definitely true
  • 41% believe that creationism is true, and that evolution is false
  • 28% believe that evolution is true, but that creationism is false
  • 3% either believe that both are false or have no opinion about at least one of the theories [my emphasis]

The means that almost a quarter of the American population have probably never taken any time to actually try to match up religion and science. Both are “true,” each in it’s own frame. You could probably pick 1 of 4 people and by deep discussion and questioning achieve nothing but irritation. The ideas would not compute. They don’t want to think about it. One could argue that they aren’t in their right minds. Which brings me to the political aspect of the poll.

According to Gallup, only 30% of Republicans believe in evolution with 68% towing the Creationist line. These numbers are almost reversed in Democratic (61%/37%) and Independent (57%/40%) camps. In the same poll, Gallup found Americans evenly split between Republicans and Democrats (31% each) and 36% mostly democratic leaning Independents.

Does this mean that being conservative means you are religious? One blogger thinks so.

People aren’t conservative because they believe in unrestricted gun ownership, and they aren’t liberal because they believe in the right of a woman to make choices about tissues in her own body. No, if this is right, people choose their beliefs because of their political temperament and not the other way around. ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ need to be seen as clusters of personality traits and stable overall worldviews, and not political creeds consisting of enumerable doctrines.

While this might be true, the skewed data might also be the result of 30 years of effort the fundamentalist religious right has put into taking over the Republican party. You might be religious and conservative. There was a time when you might also have been a Democrat. The Republican party has become so conservative because it has gotten such an influx from the Religious right.

Since the days of the Moral Majority, fundamentalist religious leaders have insistently attempted to get their followers to move into the Republican party. Not because they agree with all issues; Jesus “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God (Mat 5:9)” Christ might not have voted red in the last election. No they are Republican because that is the party the church is supporting

Jerry Fallwell said back in the 1980’s, “get them saved, get them Baptized, and get them registered.” That is why the difference between the two parties is so dramatic. The hard core believers who make up about 36% of the Republicans consider themselves a members of the Religious right as opposed to 16% in the Democratic party and 7% of Independents (Pew)

Nothing has changed, no real news here. The Republican party is made up of conservative, religious, church goers. Perhaps more surprising is that only 3 Republican candidates didn’t agree with the base. After this poll, that might change.

Let the the political poll dancing begin.

A Tale of Two Tales

Matt Nisbet has a must read post up about two articles covering Bush’s climate plan. Actually it’s less about the idea itself than how the media is reporting it.

The curious part? The two articles based on the same underlying story – written by Climate Change media guru Andrew Revkin -present the context completely differently. As can be seen from the titles – from the

New York Times – Bush Climate Plan: Amid Nays, Some Maybes

International Herald Tribune – Bush critics warming to his plans for cutting emissions

Remember these are the same articles.

Now – go, read all three pieces; then perhaps you should go find a teddy bear and slowly rock yourself because in a world where “reality” is that changeable – we are so screwed.

Totally Meta

For a poor an economically challenged liberal, I have a dirty secret. I sneak over to the WSJ about once a day.

Well, the secret isn’t that dirty: I don’t read the editorials (ick, ick, ick). Nope. I’m a fan of Carl Bialik, The Numbers Guy.

I’m more or less against fact-based science discussions. Especially when statistics are used by people who haven’t looked at the work. But Bailik has a great way of making numbers seem accessable. His discussion of the meta-analysis on the disparaged drug Avandia is a case in point.

The big news yesterday that the diabetes drug Avandia may pose cardiac risks was based on something called a meta-analysis. It’s a type of research that has some significant drawbacks, but also some unique advantages.

In a meta-analysis, researchers pool results from different studies — in this case, Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Steven Nissen and statistician Kathy Wolski analyzed 42 studies. Those studies were done by many different people, and as you might expect, there was wide variation between them. Sometimes Avandia was compared with a placebo and sometimes with alternate treatments. Adverse events — namely heart attacks shown to occur with higher frequency among Avandia users — may not have been identified consistently across the different trials. And if they weren’t, Dr. Nissen would have no way to know, because he was looking at study summaries and not patient-level data. The limitations of this “study of studies” filled a lengthy third paragraph in an accompanying New England Journal of Medicine editorial.

So why, then, use meta-analysis at all? Because for drug dangers that are rare enough, even studies of thousands of patients might not suffice to separate a real risk from random statistical variation. Combining tens of thousands of patients who underwent the treatment separately, under different protocols and supervision, may be the only way to clear thresholds for statistical significance.

He goes on to clearly describe the strengths and weaknesses of the technique; explaining the importance of the variable currently called p; when meta-analysis are useful and to explain why both sides tend to fight over the issue of whether a meta-analysis is valid.

I love statistics. (Actually, since I haven’t discussed this face to face with statistics, I should probably call it a crush, but you get the idea.)

As an example, most people, when confronted with a statistics example involving doctors, cancer patients and risk would probably change the channel. Me – I buy the book! From Joel Best’s More Damn Lies and Statistics (the sequel to Damn Lies and Statistics),

Consider the following word problem about women receiving mammograms to screen for breast cancer (the statements are, by the way, roughly accurate in regard to women in their forties who have no other symptoms):

The probability that [a woman] has breast cancer is 0.08 percent. If a woman has breast cancer, the probability is 90 percent that she will have a positive mammogram. If a woman does not have breast cancer, the probability is 7 percent that she will still have a positive mammogram. Imagine a woman who has a positive mammogram. What is the probability that she actually has breast cancer.

Confused? Don’t be ashamed. When this problem was posed to twenty-four physicians, exactly two managed to come up with the right answer. Most were wildly off: one-third answered that there was a 90 percent probability that a positive mammogram denoted actual breast cancer; and another third gave figures of 50 to 80 percent. The correct answer is about 9 percent.

Let’s look carefully at the problem. Not that breast cancer is actually rather rare (0.8 percent); that is, for every 1,000 women, 8 will have breast cancer. There is a 90 percent probability that those women will receive positive mammograms – say, 7 of the 8. That leaves 992 women who do not have breast cancer. Of this group 7 percent will also receive positive mammograms – about 69 cases of what are called false positives. Thus a total of 76 (7+69=76) women will receive positive mammograms, yet only 7 of those – about 9 percent – will actually have breast cancer. The point is that measuring risk often requires a string of calculations. Even trained professionals (such as doctors) are not used to calculating and find it easy to make mistakes. [my emphasis]

That is why fact-based science discussions fail. Not because the facts are wrong, but because any discussion of the issue won’t fit into a 30 second interview and boil down to a 25 word text snippet.

This is where framing science needs to be used. You need to be able to tell a story about how science works, how scientific uncertainty works without getting people nervous. Perhaps the fundamental difference between a scientist and a non-scientist is that the latter sees danger in uncertainty, the former sees an opportunity to write a grant proposal.

To be able to frame science, you need ideas, examples, and good stories. Like the Avandia study discussed by the Numbers Guy or some of the topics on the very entertaining Freakonomics blog by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.

But sometimes – I just love the idea for itself. Statistics about statistics. Because that is just sooo totally meta.

Bad Framing


An ad for breast implants!?

Are these people serious?

Are these people still in this world?


(Hat Tip: BitchPhD)

THANKS loads National Geographic

The kind of image that makes Global Climate Change denialist’s hearts go piddy-pat.


Arctic Ice Melting Much Faster Than Predicted

Kilimajaro’s Glaciers May Last Longer Than Predicted

Look I know both are science, but do they have to be right next to each other? Don’t they look just a bit out of sync?

Couldn’t you headline the second article with “Kilimajaro’s Glacier Loss Linked to Lower Precipitation”. (Check paragraph 4 in the article.) What might be causing the lower preciptiation – hmm?

On the second page of the article –

The scientists say that the Kilimanjaro glacier findings emphasize another way that global warming is affecting the world.

So far many experts have focused on the impact caused by rising sea levels and temperatures. But less has been said about the effects of lower precipitation.

Kilimanjaro’s shrinking glaciers buttress evidence that East Africa is drying out. And that’s a phenomenon that needs to be studied further, researchers point out.


Do’s and Don’ts of Oversight

The Washington Post has a story up today about the lack of experience staffers needed to implement Democratic oversight over the Bush administration.

According to the article, being in the minority for 10 years takes its toll. Not only on the country, but on the aides and staffers charged with finding and sorting through information. One staffer was embarrassed to admit she didn’t know she could demand documents instead of having to Google for them.

Thus, the nonprofit group Project on Government Oversight has been holding workshops on the lost handicraft of supervision.

The article is a great read and I highly recommend it.

But, to me it also points out the missing workshops for scientists. Scientists need to understand that not only the facts are important, presenting those facts are equally important. According to the Post article, some of the ideas can be directly related to science reporting.

The project’s written tips for “The Do’s and Don’ts of an Oversight Hearing” include: “Keep an eye out for the example that will put a human face on the problem. . . . Find the Department of Defense’s $640 toilet seat” and “Don’t book it in the afternoon — and especially not on a Friday. By the afternoon, most press deadlines have passed. On Friday, the hearing risks getting bumped off the news broadcast in lieu of another celebrity adoption.” [my emphasis]

The classic example of this kind of PR/Framing train wreck is the scheduled release of all three International IPCC reports on Fridays. While most scientists don’t think they should be making policy, they do think they need to make waves on important issues. That doesn’t happen on a Friday.

Thus, the second part of the IPCC, “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” was released on Friday, April 6 with little or no fanfair. The fact that there was little or no press coverage has to do with the timing not the importance.

After all, how many knew that one of the leading scientists got so frustrated with linguistic tweaking by US and Chinese politicians that she walked out? From the Washington Post on the following Saturday,

An inside look at the last few hours of tense negotiations at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reveals how the diplomats won at the end thanks to persistence and deadlines. But scientists quietly note that they have the last say.

Diplomats from 115 countries and 52 scientists hashed out the most comprehensive and gloomiest warning yet about the possible effects of global warming, from increased flooding, hunger, drought and diseases to the extinction of species.

The 23-page summary certainly didn’t sound diplomatic. But it was too much so, scientists said.

In the past, scientists at these meetings felt that their warnings were conveyed, albeit slightly edited down. But several of them left Friday with the sense that they had lost control of their document. At one point, NASA’s Cynthia Rosenzweig filed a formal protest and left the building, only to return, make peace and talk in positive tones. Others talked about abandoning the process altogether.

And even worse. How did the headline for this story change over time? When I researched this entry a week ago, I came up with the following screen shot [edited to remove the ad under the header] after searching the Washington Post web site for “IPCC Brussels”

Global Headline Change

I’ll let you guess which headline ended up being used.

All three of those links pointed to the same article. All three of those headlines reflected the same story of politics pushing scientists.

But the final headline? How do scientists ‘get the last word’ at the end of the day? It’s in the last paragraph,

Yet, scientists have their fallback: a second summary that consists of 79 densely written, heavily footnoted pages. The “technical summary,” which will eventually be released to the public but was obtained by The Associated Press, will not be edited by diplomats. The technical summary, Rosenzweig said, contains “the real facts.” [my emphasis]

Oh. Getting the facts out to the public? Right!

Framing science? Workshops about not scheduling things for Friday afternoons might be a start. And refusing to take part in those kinds of hearing due to ‘scheduling conflicts’ might be another.

Science? No.
Important? Your choice – it’s your world.

One Mind at a Time

I recently watched Morgan Spurlock’s 30 days as a Muslim and realised it would make a great example of how framing works as a cultural tool.

In the standard 30 Days tradition, the episode took a someone out of their normal lives and forced them into a situation they are completely unprepared for. Here Dave Stacy, a Christian from West Virginia is sent to Dearborn, Minnesota where there is a large Muslim community to ‘become’ a Muslim for 30 days. It is not a pretty sight. His conflict and unease are apparent as he slowly overcomes his preconceptions. His frame for what Islam is and what Muslims think and do is difficult to for him to overcome.

It is wonderful to watch Dave’s opinion shift from him asking the question, “Do you guys think that there are – like – any sleeper cell activity around here?” to him being forced to answer the same question. And to finally understand how wrong the question itself really is.

I realised that the link between terrorism and Muslims is an excellent example of framing and re-framing. Not framing in the form of spinning an embarrassment but in the sense of changing cognitive reactions to certain words.

This is also shows how framing needs to be fought with framing. Let’s look for a second at that the connection between a religion and terrorism. A connection, today an almost immediate mental reaction to either word, is a fairly recent creation.

According to the online etymology dictionary,

General sense of “systematic use of terror as a policy” is first recorded in Eng. 1798. Terrorize “coerce or deter by terror” first recorded 1823. Terrorist in the modern sense dates to 1947, especially in reference to Jewish tactics against the British in Palestine — earlier it was used of extremist revolutionaries in Russia (1866); and Jacobins during the French Revolution (1795) — from Fr. terroriste.

Thinking about the evolution of the connection is interesting.

If I had used the word terrorist ten years ago in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings, while the spectre of Muslim extremism was on the sidelines, many Americans would have thought of intellectually challenged, white supremacists living in a cabin in Montana or on a compound in Texas. (One could even debunk those connections, but I won’t go there today.)

Going back thirty years into the 1970’s there were again two types of terrorists; one secular – socialist, exemplified by the RAF in Germany and the Red Brigade in Italy, and one religious – the religion Christianity, Catholics and Protestants, the battlefield Ireland. (The Palestinian conflict and the PLO might have also come to mind but that was about territory and not religion.)

Going back another 30 years, into the late 1940s, one finds the first use of car bombs in the Middle East, not by Muslim extremists but by Zionist organisations fighting for the creation of Israel.

Another twenty years back and the terrorist threat morphs into a communist plot – connected, tenuously, to the creation of the labor movement.

Finally we arrive at the end of the 19th century. Here the true terrorists aren’t religious but anarchist. Fighting for a social revolution to end government, to end centralised control, elected or otherwise.

All these movements were thought to be terrorist. And all would have been the immediate mental image to the word terrorist for the times described. But times change and the framing changes. The scaffolding, the mental pattern matching superhighways change through reinforcement. The news of bomb after bomb in northern Ireland made the entire emerald isle a suspicious den of religious extremists. Not exactly the image created today when one thinks less of guns and more of Guinness when Ireland is mentioned.

To say the world Russia today may produce many thoughts but communist drone or some variant thereof won’t be one of them.

Frames have changed. The mental scaffolding reformed to produce different pathways. Reframing happens. Slowly, almost without people being aware of it. It happens because enough information reinforces differing imagery.

And notice, during my discussion of terrorism, I didn’t use the word Muslim. I didn’t reenforce the pathway I am trying to break. Ideally one would turn on rant mode when someone makes the connection explain the emotional reactions the word terrorist had created – never mentioning the other side. You don’t reenforce frames by denying them. You connect one thing to something else. Terrorism – lots of things secular and religious. Not terrorism is not muslim. (Big, bad no-no.)

Despite the central imagery of terrorims in the episode, 30 Days is one step towards trying to reframe the right wing stranglehold on the American psyche. Showing how wrong the current cognitive scaffolding in American thought really is.

Both the Muslim episode and a film called After 30 Days as a Muslim with an interview with Morgan Spurlock and Dave Stacy can be found on YouTube.

But this battle can only be fought piece for piece. From an awards ceremony featured after the interview, Spurlock brings the issue to the forefront,

[W]e managed to reignite a debate that, to me, resonates as much in the nation today as it did hundreds of years ago. What does it mean to be an American? In post 9/11 America, we have become a nation divided; a nation divided by race, by religion by belief, and country of origin. A divide that is further perpetuated by biased news gathering and biased news reporting. What this show has managed to accomplish is amazing. By showing the simple actions of honest people we have stirred a dialog that is not rooted in Red state Blue state rhetoric, that is not a soapbox for policy or politics, but is something missing from today’s television landscape, the real voice of American citizens.

Dave Stacy will defend the Islamic faith in the future because his frame of the religion was radically altered. Some of the people who have watched this show will understand that the simplistic model of Islam hammered into the minds of the heartland, might not be as simple as one would like. Others will have shifted slightly.

This minor shift – this one small step – is reframing. Reframing works – one mind at a time.

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.

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…