Framing Science: Spin or Communication?

As a scientist who has morphed into a full-time writer, I care deeply about both the substance and communication of science to the general public.

I’m sure American University Communications Professor Matt Nisbet shares my concerns, but I have to admit a rather large degree of discomfort with his advocacy of an approach he calls “framing science.”

The concept has created quite a stir, yet I can’t figure out what is truly novel about it. Good communication has always required the writer/speaker/communicator to understand and connect to the audience. For example, Nisbet has gathered a great panel to discuss Communicating Science in a Religious America at next February’s meeting of the American association for the Advancement of Science, including William and Mary Anthropology Professor Barbara King, whose book Evolving God addresses the origins of religion in a way that both believers and nonbelievers will find fascinating.

But did King consciously “frame” her argument for her audience? Or did she merely recognize an important question that she could share with them?

The difference between merely communicating and framing seems to me to be this: Framing is a technique designed to persuade rather than to merely inform.

In my writing for children, my goal is to inform my readers. I make clear how science deals with uncertainty and controversy, but I don’t shy away from drawing conclusions from the interplay of observations and theorizing.

If I were to write a book about global warming, for example (editors take note!), I would definitely discuss the consensus view and the various scenarios that need to be considered. My point of view would be clear — and that’s where the term “framing” starts to bother me.

To present my point of view, I would offer my readers the “big picture.” Framing, it seems to me, reduces the presentation to a series of snapshots.

That approach is appropriate for advertising and for political persuasion, but it gets uncomfortably close to what has come to be called “spin” in modern political discussion.

Although I would love to be able to attend Nisbet’s AAAS panel next February, I wish he would go back to his academic department’s name, Communication, when dealing with science, and leave “framing” for his colleagues in the departments of Political Science and Marketing (or whatever they are called at American U.)

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