Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Today, I wish to step into this framing debate that is going on, because I think that it raises some important moral questions, and people are missing some significant facts.

See “Framing Science – The Dialogue of the Deaf” for one take on the current debate with relevant links.

First, let me fill in some background on the current debate.


“Framing” is a rhetorical tactic grounded on the fact (and it is a fact) that people adopt most of their beliefs ‘on the fly’ without taking the time to look at the details or study the evidence. Even those of us who love details and evidence only have the time to apply our interest to a small number of subjects. Because of this, if you wish to reach the public and actually affect their attitudes and behavior, you have to ‘package’ your message in a way that they will actually accept and listen to what you say. If you do not do this, then your message will simply bounce off of their defenses and you will accomplish nothing.

However, in many cases, ‘framing’ is just another word for ‘lying’. The goal is to get people to adopt a particular attitude. The means involve wrapping the message in some sugar-coated pill that will not set off any alarms. In other words – to ‘frame’ an issue is to lie just enough to get a core truth through a listener’s defenses.

The Consequences of Framing

The issue of framing is a hot topic today because of an article that appeared in Science Magazine, and a similar article in the Washington Post, where Nesbit and Mooney argued that scientists need to do a better job of ‘framing’ their findings. On issues such as global warming, evolution, and stem-cell research, the authors contend that scientists need to give a better focus on those parts of the issue that will make it through the public filters.

For example, on the issue of global warming, Nesbit and Mooney argue that scientists should use the ‘frames’ of “economic development” and “social progress.” On the issue of stem cell research, the ‘frames’ of social responsibility and medical progress should be useful in getting people to change their attitudes towards this research.

The major controversy, at least in the atheist community, that this article has generated comes from the claim that people like Dawkins and Harris should tone down their language, and that scientists should not be so outspoken in their ridicule of religious beliefs. These ‘frames’ simply cannot make it through the filters that most people use to judge what they see and hear. As such, important truths are being condemned to sit at a permanent minority position.

The evolution issue also highlights another point: Messages must be positive and respect diversity. . . . many scientists not only fail to think strategically about how to communicate on evolution, but belittle and insult others' religious beliefs.

In fact, Nesbit and Mooney argue that the anti-religious ‘frames’ used in science have actually given anti-science a boost. It has allowed anti-science types to ‘frame’ science as atheistic and a threat, thus putting science at a disadvantage.

Dawkins, Harris, and Playing Nice

I am going to start by mentioning a couple of points I made in an earlier post, “Atheist Evangelism and Political Strategy” on ‘playing nice’.

When it comes to bigotry, ‘playing nice’ does not work. Hate and bigotry will find reasons to express itself even if it has to make up those reasons out of whole cloth. It is simply baseless to assert that the Holocaust, negro slavery, the near-genocide of the native Americans, and the subjugation of women as mere property, existed because the victims were not being sufficiently ‘nice’.

Second, Dawkins and Harris acquired the audience they did precisely because of their uncompromising position. Some people seem to think that if Dawkins and Harris had written more kinder and gentler books that they would have been just as popular, but atheism would not have been tarnished by their words. In fact, if they had written kinder and gentler books, their sales would have been insignificant. Nobody would have heard of them, and atheists would still be hiding in the corner.

It is simply contrary to fact to assume that atheists get to choose their spokespeople, or that an individual will becomes a spokesman regardless of whatever message that person decides to give. The media will decide who speaks for atheists, and they will make that decision based on the criteria of, “Who has the power to connect eyeballs to advertisements?” The ‘nice’ person simply does not have the power to do this.

‘Being nice’ simply means ‘being easy to ignore’. Thinking that one can end bigotry simply by ‘being nice’ is just wishful thinking. It will take a form of protest that forces the wrongness of bigotry out into the open for everybody to see before it will be recognized as such and ended.

Everybody Frames

In one important sense, it makes no sense to oppose framing. We all do it. We all have to; the laws of nature leave us no choice. The only issue is that some people do it better than others.

What I mean by this is that, before I start writing each blog, I have to make a set of decisions. What will I write on? What aspect of that issue will I focus on? What points am I going to bring up? What things am I going to ignore?

Each day, I can post only one blog, and I only have 1500 to 2000 words to spend on that issue.

I have to make choices.

Writing is an intentional act, which means that those choices will necessarily be a product of my beliefs and my desires or my values. This is true of everybody who chooses to write. This is even true of the scientist who creates a paper that he intends to submit to a peer-reviewed journal. The mere fact that she has decided to try to write and submit such a paper reflects not only her beliefs, but also her values. I would argue that a desire to better explain and predict natural phenomena, a devotion to truth, and respect for the institutions of peer-reviewed research using the forms of argument that scientists have found beneficial for so many decades, are good values. However, the point remains that this is not a value-free enterprise.

The scientist ‘frames’ her paper to fit into – to make it through the filters – for such a journal.

Everybody is engaged in framing.

Quick Facts

I started off defending ‘framing’ because the concept is, in fact, grounded in truth.

Nobody has the time to (1) learn all of the arguments for the existence of God and the philosophical rebuttal of those arguments, (2) study and understand all aspects of climate change relevant to future policy, (3) obtain a sufficient understanding of international economics sufficient to form an informed opinion on NAFTA and LAFTA, (4) fully understand the physiology of drug dependence and addiction in order to determine the best drug policy, (5) become an expert in the sociological effects of capital punishment and factors that may affect murder rates, (6) understand the ways in which chemicals may interact with the ozone layer and the rule that the ozone layer plays in human health, (7) obtain a sufficiently in-depth understanding of the culture and situation in Iraq so as to determine the most effective policy, not only for America for the sake of all innocent people who might get killed or maimed.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

We have to pick and choose what we are going to spend time on, and we can only spend time on a small fraction of the issues that are important.

In order to regulate our time, we perform triage on all of the beliefs we come into contact with. That which we can easily digest and add to our store of existing beliefs we accept without question. That which seriously conflicts with our existing framework we reject as a waste of time. There is room for only a small number of items in the ‘middle ground’ where we consider it important enough to take the time to look at the issue carefully.

Even here we can do little more than to compare these beliefs to those that we had previously let in without filtering.

The demand that everybody be perfectly rational in everything they do is as much a fantasy as heaven. Such a world will never exist. The vast majority of our beliefs are not acquired through the careful application of reason.

There is not enough time.

If you want to write a blog where your words might actually impact people’s lives, then you need to write something that can get past the gatekeeper and actually get stored in the brain of your reader or listener. You need to write short, quick headlines that connect your truth to something that is important to the reader, allow them to digest the truth, then move on quickly.

Framing versus Lying

However, whenever I hear people advocate ‘framing’ as a rhetorical technique, I find it very difficult to distinguish between what the speaker calls ‘framing’, and what an ethicist such as myself would call ‘lying’. When I hear some people talk about ‘framing’ I have an image pop into my head of some teenager arrested for stealing a car who tells the police, “I didn’t really steal the car, I was just borrowing it.”

Rationalizing theft as ‘borrowing’, is itself a form of framing, as much as rationalizing graffiti as ‘artistic expression’ or rationalizing theft as under some Robin Hood concept of Justice.

So is the moral crimes of intellectual recklessness and engineering false beliefs - performed by people who have no love of truth who have no moral objection to deceiving others for profit.

The invasion of Iraq was ‘framed’ as a necessary and justified step to defend America from somebody who had weapons of mass destruction and was not afraid to use them against the United States. These claims, if not outright dishonest, were at best intellectually reckless. ‘Framing’ the evolution debate in terms of ‘teach the controversy’ is a manipulative lie, and ‘framing’ the global warming debate in terms of the uncertainty of science is not only intellectually dishonest but immoral.

Asking people – and, in particular, scientists – to embrace what so many people have turned into a fundamentally dishonest practice has serious problems.


Ultimately, the most questionable part of this whole debate on ‘framing’ that I have heard so far is the unspoken and undefended assumption that everybody should be doing the same thing. Nesbit and Mooney seem to believe that everybody should be participating in a campaign of ‘framing’ material for the public, and that those who do not do so are behaving inappropriately.

I would argue that there are certain advantages to be had in specialization, with different people putting their different talents to work in those areas where their talents best fit.

The scientist’s quest is for theories that best explain and predict real-world events. This quest sets her mind against forms of thinking that simply do not produce these types of results. It is quite appropriate that they would respond to ‘magical thinking’ with ridicule; there is no place for it in their culture.

Yet, this leaves room for another group of people to perform yet another task. Their job is to take the findings of science – the theories that best explain and predict real-world events – and translate them for the sake of their chosen audience. Some might write for farmers, some might write for interested high-school students, and some might write for public policy decision makers.

If anybody thinks that ‘framing’ is a good idea, they should consider themselves more than welcome to pick an audience and start ‘framing’ the science to that audience; as long as their ‘frames’ show a proper respect for the truth. But there is no sense in condemning others who have different interests and different goals.

No comments: