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Frame or be framed?

The blogosphere crashes into the peer-reviewed academic sphere this week with an essay that tells scientists they must "frame" their findings on controversial issues such as climate change and stem cells, or risk being run over by political spin machines. It's a view you often find on science blogs - and indeed, the co-authors of this week's piece are two well-known science bloggers. But this essay appears in Science, America's most prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journal.

The authors of the piece, "Framing Science," are Matthew Nisbet (a professor at the American University who has a blog also titled Framing Science) and Chris Mooney (author of "The Republican War on Science" and The Intersection's blogmaster). For now, the Policy Forum essay is available only to Science's subscribers, but I would argue this is one article that should be put out in the open online: After all, it's designed to spark a wider discussion about how scientists engage themselves with the public, and makes great fodder for a host of Weblogs to chew on.

The basic point is that it's not enough to focus on "just the facts," even in the fact-based realms of science:

"Without misrepresenting scientific information on highly contested issues, scientists must learn to actively 'frame' information to make it relevant to different audiences. Some in the scientific community have been receptive to this message. However, many scientists retain the well-intentioned belief that, if laypeople better understood technical complexities from news coverage, their viewpoints would be more like scientists', and controversy would subside.

"In reality, citizens do not use the news media as scientists assume. Research shows that people are rarely well enough informed or motivated to weigh competing ideas and arguments. Faced with a daily torrent of news, citizens use their value predispositions (such as political or religious beliefs) as perceptual screens, selecting news outlets and Web sites whose outlooks match their own. Such screening reduces the choices of what to pay attention to and accept as valid. ..."

Nisbet and Mooney go on to cite the examples of climate change, evolutionary biology and human embryonic stem cells. In each case, policy advocates frame the scientific issues in a larger context:

Nisbet and Mooney worry that scientists tend to get too caught up in the raw data - and leave the interpretation and framing to the hurly-burly of the political process. They say it's time for scientists to do the framing first - particularly with the 2008 presidential campaign heating up:

"Some readers may consider our proposals too Orwellian, preferring to safely stick to the facts. Yet scientists must realize that facts will be repeatedly misapplied and twisted in direct proportion to their relevance to the political debate and decision-making. In short, as unnatural as it might feel, in many cases, scientists should strategically avoid emphasizing the technical details of science when trying to defend it."

The reactions to the essay are already mounting up in the blogosphere, and you'll find links to a lot of them from Nisbet and Mooney themselves. I turned to Roger Pielke Jr., director of the University of Colorado's Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. He's one of the science-policy bloggers at Prometheus, and has taken issue with Mooney's ideas in the past as a contributor to TPM Cafe.

This time, Pielke doesn't see a whole lot to disagree with.

"The dynamics that they describe about framing are spot on," he told me today. "This is exactly how humans filter information."

He does quibble, however, with the idea that scientists can hold themselves back from framing their research. "The reality is that scientists do this, too. ... We don't have a choice. We're always framing information when we present it," he said. "I actually teach this stuff, so I'm simpatico with the information they're presenting. Facts don't speak for themselves."

For example, scientists can differ on the basic definition of climate change, which "itself is a political exercise," he said. Should the term refer only to changes that result from greenhouse gases, or should it take in all changes in weather patterns, regardless of the cause? "If you pick one definition over another, it has implications for how you think about the problem and what solutions you come up with," Pielke said.

We're likely to see some great examples of framing in the days ahead - not only when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases its next report (duh!), but also when the U.S. Senate debates stem-cell legislation next week. One side will be talking about the perils of killing embryos and the promise of adult stem cells, while the other side will emphasize the frozen-embryo surplus and the promise of imminent cures.

The reality is that both sides in the political debates go beyond the scientific facts - which shouldn't be surprising. Nor should it come as a shock that the scientific process is messy. There are almost always enough loose facts dangling out of a theory to give ideologues something to grasp at.

Thus, framing a controversial issue - that is, seeing the larger pattern within the messy data - is almost always done as a matter of course. And it only makes sense to reduce the scientific complexities to their essentials when presenting the issue to the general public. That's what I try to do all the time.

But when it comes to working the raw data, scientists run the risk of framing their issues too tightly: Researchers are traditionally seen as the umpires for scientific strikes and balls. Sure, there's the occasional bad call or outright scandal - but the scientific process eventually corrects the mistake. If scientists are perceived as outright partisans in the political arena, that could work against the integrity of the scientific process as well as the political process. (Can the words "political" and "integrity" be used in the same sentence?)

This doesn't mean scientists should refrain from politics. Heck, even baseball umpires follow their favorite teams when they're off the field. But when it comes to the facts, scientists should call 'em as they see 'em - and not try to "frame their pitches" to fit the politics.

To see how scientist bloggers can cover the bases on a controversial subject, turn to RealClimate. The beauty of the blog is that the authors are willing to address all those loose ends and errant pitches in depth - with a nicely tuned sense of humor as a bonus. Their April Fool's offering serves as a classic example of inside-baseball satire.