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Science communication and framing

The “framing science” debate raised its ugly head again recently. By the time I came along, the battle lines had been drawn and hardened, and everyone cared enough about the issue that I didn’t have to. At this stage, I rather doubt there’s anything I could say that would change anyone’s minds. Fundamentally, I’m lukewarm on an issue that requires passion. But a question I was asked today made me think about the difference between communicating an issue and framing an issue.

I was asked a question something along the lines of: “You’re teaching an advanced ecology course, and you are asked by a pre-med student why they should care about this stuff. How do you answer them?” There are a couple ways to approach this question. One answer stems from what a friend of mine told a pre-dental student when asked the same question – dentistry, when it comes down to it, is oral ecosystem management. More importantly, ecology is an exercise in complexity, one of the few places that you will be exposed to that level of complexity in living systems. And the human body is a complex system (and a complex ecosystem).

There are other valid reasons for making students take biological classes that they believe they will never need…the “informed citizenry” argument. Issues like climate change, GMOs and stem cells are fairly complex issues that the general public needs to know about. But they don’t work equally well for all audiences…”stem cells” isn’t going to get much traction with a pre-med student complaining about having to take a botany class. So, you say…framing matters. Right? Well…no. There really are a number of different reasons why students should take a biology class. But these are real reasons. Sometimes the correct answer is “I don’t see any reason why you should be required to take this class, and maybe you should take this up with whomever it is makes these rules.”

There are a number of good reasons why some people find evolution so challenging to their world view. Some aren’t able to cope with “dethroning” humans. Some are afraid of modernity and a world that moves at a pace they can’t relate to. (“Having been led astray by creationist lies” is, in my opinion, a reason devoid of any redeeming qualities.) You can argue that someone like PZ or Dawkins isn’t going to reach them. That’s a plausible argument, and I’d be interested in seeing the data behind such an argument. But I suspect that you are going to reach far fewer people if you don’t want to take anyone outside of their comfort zone.

The creationists have successfully framed science as atheistic and amoral. More importantly, they have communicated atheistic to mean “anti-religious” and amoral to mean immoral.*  It would be great if we could separate atheistic from anti-religious and amoral from immoral.  But if you’re arguing semantics, you’ve lost already.  The counterargument is to accept the creationist equation of atheistic with anti-religious and trot out people like Ken Miller to prove that they’re false.  While that might sway a few people, it’s fairly easy to say “but they’re not real Christians” (making, of course, “Christian” the antonym of atheistic”).  Mind you, this is different from saying “religion and science are not incompatible”.  This is unrelated to religious scientists speaking of the universe in terms of God.  The problem with saying “science is not atheistic” is that (a) it doesn’t change the playing field, and (b) it’s not true, unless you accept the other side’s redefinition of the terminology.

You change people’s minds and perceptions when you take them outside of their comfort zone.  You don’t change the way people think if you start by accepting their world view and then tinkering.  “Love the sinner” hasn’t made religious homophobes more accepting of gays.  And people who use the bible to justify homophobia aren’t convinced when you try to present the idea in the broader context.  What has worked is getting people out of the closet and into the everyday lives of the general public.  I strongly suspect that, in order to change people’s minds, you need to take them out of their comfort zones.

3 Responses

  1. thanks to your analysis..good 😀

  2. Hi there,
    If a pre-med student asked you why they should take your ecology course and learn about evolution, why not frame your answers exactly as the National Academies did in their recent evolution report. Notice this lead quote from the president of the Institute of Medicine in a press release from the Academies:

    “Understanding evolution is essential to identifying and treating disease,” said Harvey Fineberg, president of IOM. “For example, the SARS virus evolved from an ancestor virus that was discovered by DNA sequencing. Learning about SARS’ genetic similarities and mutations has helped scientists understand how the virus evolved. This kind of knowledge can help us anticipate and contain infections that emerge in the future.”

    And if a student asked about religion and evolution, why not frame your response exactly as the National Academies did, with this frame:

    “The evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith. Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future.”

    The National Academies conducted audience research in order to be able to better address the types of questions a student might have about the relevance or need to learn about evolution. In their audience research, they specifically wanted to understand how to better frame the complexities and importance of evolution, providing a storyline that non-traditional audiences would find meaningful and understand. You can read about their research at the link below with links to the recent summary at CBE Life Sciences Education:


  3. (As an aside, when a pre-med student asks “why am I taking this class” it isn’t likely that they are asking “why should I learn about evolution” but rather, “why should I learn about ecology”. Nitpicking aside…)

    If you use the SARS answer with a pre-med it isn’t a frame, is it? I think it would be a direct answer to their question. If you used that answer to a general audience – say, at a panel discussion where you’re trying to counter broad generalities with broad generalities, or where you’re trying to counter the lie that evolution isn’t important to medicine, then yes, it’s a great answer. But there’s a whole swath of other situations where an answer like that will simply come off as a platitude. If you say that to a class, it leaves you totally open to the counterargument, whispered from the back of class “but that’s just microevolution”. “Frames” lack agility and, to some extent, authenticity.

    Regarding a question about religion and evolution, again, I find the idea of responding with a frame to be inauthentic. Why not respond with a “why do you think that?” and move on from there. I can’t imagine a situation where a “frame” beats a conversation. I think that most students are smart enough to recognise a slogan when they hear one.

    Obviously, I may be wrong. But my experience is that people respond far better to people than they do slogans.

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