Framing is the new spin

At one time, framing referred to the building of supportive structure of something; our founding fathers, for example, are also known as the framers of the Constitution. Now, however, framing has an altogether new meaning. According to WikiPedia, “Framing defines how an element of rhetoric is packaged so as to allow certain interpretations and rule out others.

This used to be known as spin. Spin, however, began to take on negative connotations, once people started realizing that they were being had by the so-called spin doctors. Now, instead of being spun, information is being framed to put it in the best context possible. I’m guessing that the term came from photography, where you frame your subject in the viewfinder. You choose your composition carefully to emphasize your subject and to exclude as much undesirable elements in the as possible.

There is, perhaps, a slight difference between spin and framing, although the effect is roughly the same: the public ends up with incomplete but highly processed information. Spin is trying to nuance existing information, whereas framing has to do with how to present information to the public. Framing is all the rage in politics, as you can imagine. And now, framing is being talked about by scientists.

Yes, scientists. You see, it seems that the general public still doubts global warming, the benefits of stem-cell research, and even Darwinism. In fact, it seems that atheism is actually in decline! Anyone who has read A Brave New World or any number of other futuristic novels knows that in order for the science-elite to control the world, they need buy-in from the public. So, some scientists are suggesting that the answer is in framing the information to make it more acceptable, and even desirable (“it’s not a bug, it’s a feature”).

Matthew Nisbet is one such framing proponent, with his blog Framing Science. Chris Mooney is another, who writes:

So in today’s America, like it or not, those seeking a broader public acceptance of science must rethink their strategies for conveying knowledge. Especially on divisive issues, scientists should package their research to resonate with specific segments of the public.

The Post article also quotes PZ Myers, who takes a different view (it’s odd to actually agree with Myers at times…):

“I’d end up giving fluff talks that play up economic advantages and how evolution contributes to medicine … and I’d never talk about mechanisms and evidence again. That sounds like a formula for disaster to me – it turns scientists into guys with suits who have opinions, and puts us in competition with lawyers and bureaucrats in the media.”

So, the question of “to frame, or not to frame,” is still being debated, and I’m guessing we’ll hear more. With Ben Stein’s movie coming out in February, the framing issue may heat up, but we’ll have to see. Jake Young has an interesting look at the framing issue as it relates to science and atheism, Why Pairing Science and Atheism is High-Brow. Some problems with his thinking are pointed out by Joy at Telic Thoughts. Again, I expect we’ll hear more on framing science.

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One Response to Framing is the new spin

  1. Coming up on September 28, Nisbett and Mooney will square off against PZ and Greg Laden in Minneapolis the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota. I will be there with my Scarlet “A” t-shirt (with the plug for Richard Dawkins) to take the side of Laden and Myers. Anyone who reads Alden’s excellent site should come in and check it out.

    You shouldn’t worry about agreeing with PZ, Alden. It is a sign of growth.

    The framing issue is one that liberals finally woke up to in 2004, after it has been practiced by the Republicans since the 1970’s. It was developed in by the Chicago School as an effort to make liberalism look ridiculous and conservatism look rational. It has been effective at creating frames such as “Liberalism is based on emotion, conservatism is based on Reason,” creating the terms Global Climate Change to replace Global Warming, Healthy Forests Initiative to describe laws which allow lumber companies to log forests in ways which actually destroy the land and rivers through erosion, and a whole host of Reagan-Bush-Bush actions.

    Framing is a fact of politics, and it always has been, the Chicago School used a scientific approach through linguistics, and George Lakoff has been trying to encourage liberals to follow suit (but we are too emotional to take the bait.)

    What has gotten the blogosphere buzzing about framing is the position that the atheists have actually been driving people away from science, and of course this raises some hackles. Mine among them.

    Here are a couple if my entries on Framing:

    They both contain several links to “framing” articles. I personally think that Nisbett and Mooney are misusing framing to get atheists to “sit down and shut up.” I pointed out on their blog that Mooney’s own book title “The Republican War on Science” is perhaps far more guilty of creating a negative frame regarding science.

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