Framing Science sparks a seismic blog debate

Our Policy Forum article at Science has generated a monster blog discussion, one that is almost too much to keep up with. I continue to try to keep a summary here with my quick responses, where appropriate. I have also posted several comments at other blogs. I will continue to update as more blog commentary develops.

Reactions so far:

-->Over at The Intersection, a very strong endorsement from Flock of Dodos director Randy Olson:

Nisbet and Mooney are taking on the odious job of being the messengers of the new era for the world of science with their excellent essay in Science this week. I'm afraid they will be greeted with plenty of resistance, but the times are a changing.

--> Praise from UWisc Life Sciences Communication prof Dietram Scheufele:

Google co-founder Larry Page scolded scientists for not thinking about their audiences enough at this year's AAAS meeting in San Francisco. Science, he argued has a marketing problem, and if we like it or not, it needs to be fixed....Framing is not about pushing simplistic and potentially one-sided frames, but it is about making sure that people are exposed to all sides of the debate and to all possible ways of making sense of these issues. American University's Matthew Nisbet and journalist Chris Mooney hammer that point home one more time in their excellent Policy Forum piece in Science this week.

-->A reaction to all the reaction from Scheufele.

-->A "tip of the hat" from Lakoff's Rockridge Institute.

-->Another reaction to all of the reaction from Chad Orzel, a physics professor:

One of the more ironic things about the whole framing argument... is how quick a lot of the anti-framing people are to declare that Mooney and Nisbet are just completely and totally wrong. And the people who are most adamant about Nisbet and Mooney being way off base are the people who are most outraged whenever somebody with an engineering degree dares to say something stupid about biology.

The irony here is that this framing business is exactly Nisbet's area of expertise. This is what he does as a scholar, not some casual hobby where he's talking out his ass the same as everybody else with a blog. I'm not saying that nobody who isn't an expert should be able to comment-- that would be stupid-- but you'd think that people wouldn't be quite so quick to dismiss the whole thing as if it were something he and Chris Mooney came up with over a few beers one weekend. I doubt there have been any objections raised in the on-line discussion that he hasn't already considered, and I really doubt that any of the objections raised are half as devastating as the people posting them imagine.

-->Terrific analysis (and praise) from's Alan Boyle:

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.

--->Quoted in the same Boyle article, an endorsement from UColorado's Roger Pielke:

"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."

-->More analysis from the New Scientist.

-->Reaction to all of the reaction from David Roberts at the environmental news site Grist.

-->In a follow-up, Roberts endorses once again our central argument:

People begin with a worldview, a set of assumptions and values and predilections, and tend to work backward from there, gathering facts that are convenient. Inconvenient facts just slide right off. So if scientists want to persuade, instead of just lecture, they must take those worldviews and values into account.

-->In echoing our argument, Yale University neurologist Steve Novella turns to the example of Carl Sagan:

There is no perfect solution, so uncomfortable compromises have to be made - and that's when people fight the most fiercely. For me, the solutions (as much as they are) are to recognize human nature and work with it - that means telling engaging and meaningful stories that are informed by rigorous scientific facts and concepts. We need to follow the lead of Carl Sagan by finding the human angle in science - especially the positive uplifting ones - and emphasize them.

-->A warning from Eric Berger at the Houston Chronicle:

The bottom line is that the public view of scientists -- which is pretty good right now -- will be compromised if scientists start looking and presenting evidence that only supports their preconceived notions, or are widely perceived as doing such. At that point science starts looking like something less than science. Perhaps this is the only way to go in an increasingly fractured media world, but it is not somewhere I would tread lightly.

-->Lone Star praise from Texas Tech communication professor Sam Bradley:

There are important implications in scientists stepping away from the proverbial microscope and into the policy arena. However, as Nisbet and Mooney point out, sticking to the facts might end in a lost battle to defend their science.

-->Over at the influential RealClimate, NASA's Gavin Schmidt relates framing to his IPCC-related media interviews.

-->Similar observations from Princeton University by climate scientist Simon Donner.

-->At Cosmic Variance, Cal Tech physicist Sean Carroll observes that as science journalists disappear from news organizations, understanding what is effective communication becomes even more important.

-->A lengthy synthesis and commentary at the Daily Kos.

-->Thoughts from my brother Erik, a Cornell PhD candidate studying framing as it applies to international media.

-->An alternative view from U of MN-Morris Biology professor PZ Myers :

I agree with Nisbet and Mooney that assistance from those better versed in the politics of communication should be welcomed. I appreciate suggestions for polishing. However, I think Nisbet and Mooney are so focused on how better to fit scientist's goals to the public's perceptions that they neglect another important function: sometimes we want to change the public's ideas. We want to break the frames of the debate and shift whole world views, and accommodating ourselves to the status quo won't do.

My response:

Investments in formal science education and traditional science media remain important as long term strategies, since these initiatives will hopefully sponsor generational gains in citizen knowledge (and maybe actually change world views.) But PZ's hoped for revolution won't happen over night. Indeed, in the contentious policy debates that take place over the next election cycle or decade, scientists must learn to focus on "framing" their messages in ways that resonate with Americans' existing world views.

More than 80% of Americans believe in God and going to church remains the most popular of American volunteer activities. As a result, with many members of the public, communicating on issues like climate change or evolution means developing messages that resonate with, or at least complement, their religious identities.

-->Praise from John Fleck, science writer at the Albuquerque, N.M. Journal:

I am going to print out hundreds of copies of the piece in tomorrow's Science by Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney, to hand out to every scientist I meet.

--> A well-crafted response from Fleck to PZ Myers:

Meyers (sic) and his pals on the scientific loading dock would be well advised, if they really care about helping solve the problems they are working so hard to address, to spend some time in the social science literature Nisbet and Mooney are citing, rather than thinking they know better than the scientists who study the field. In ignoring the data and the literature that surrounds it, they're making the same mistake they so rightly criticize their opponents for making - ignoring the science.

-->Praise from Mike the Mad Biologist:

I've just finished reading Chris Mooney's and Matt Nisbet's Science article about communicating science to the general public. It's right on target.

-->A must-read synthesis by Bora at Blog Around the Clock:

...there are two groups of people who pretty much agree with each other but do not realize that they are not exactly talking about the same thing. Thus, the term 'framing' has two meanings and one is discussed by one group and the other meaning by the other group. As the two meanings suggest two different strategies, the two groups think that they disagree with each other.

--> A suggestion from geologist Chris Rowan, a post-doc in South Africa:

Indeed you can't deny that a frame - or the understanding of how people filter and prejudge the information which a frame represents - is clearly a valuable and effective communication tool. It's how they're used which is the issue: nicking some terminology from another scientific hot potato, the debate boils down to, do we concentrate on adaptation, moulding ourselves to fit the current media landscape, as Chris, Matt and others argue? Or do we pursue a mitigation strategy, where we fight to change the media obsession with 15 second soundbites? Probably we need to pursue both...

--> At Uncertain Principles, a call to arms from a physics professor:

What we need is not so much to train individual scientists to be mediocre PR flacks, but to get the scientific community to employ professional PR flacks. There are people out there who manipulate public opinion for a living, and they'll work for anyone. Find them, hire them, and listen to them.

-->Perspective from science journalist Carl Zimmer:

I suppose more elaborate framing may be effective for scientists when they testify in front of Congress or go on talk radio, for whatever goals they decide to achieve. But if I call someone up for an interview and get a lot of buzzwords, my journalistic hackles will definitely be raised.

-->Criticism from Larry Moran, UToronto biochemistry prof:

I think I'll try and emulate Isaac Asimov, Dick Lewontin, Carl Sagan, Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers.... They're scientists who, in my opinion, communicate pretty effectively and they attracted lots of readers. They didn't have to disguise their atheism or their liberalism in order to get a point across. I don't think they took lessons on 'framing.'

My response:

Dawkins et al. are great at explaining science to science enthusiasts, but don't really go beyond that small audience. In fact, Dawkins' attacks on religion end up alienating an important swing public on the political issue of teaching evolution in schools. As much as I might personally admire his books, he rallies both bases, feeds misleading "science vs. religion" coverage in the press, and catalyzes more polarization.

-->An observation from Trinifar:

The debate about framing initiated by Matt and Chris has in large part become co-opted by people interesting (sic) in the evolution/creationism and atheism/religion debates. Let's try to bring it back to what is both urgent and important.

-->More reaction to all the reaction from Trinifar.

-->Criticism from freelance science journalist James Hrynyshyn

Essentially, my response is that it is neither realistic nor fair to ask scientists to ditch their penchant for the facts and wander into territory more familiar to the propagandist and the journalist.:

-->Praise from Mike Dunford, grad student in zoology and contributor to Panda's Thumb:

As long as the people we need to reach are uninterested in the science involved in the issue, we're going to need to find other ways to get them interested in the issue itself. Framing the issue in a way that shows people why they should care is one way to do that, and I'm not sure that there is a better one.

--> Orac, the nom de blog of a surgeon/scientist, hits a home run with this point:

Scientists already "frame" their arguments and work each and every day. They just don't do it for the audience that Mooney and Nisbet are talking about, the public. They do it for their fellow scientists, to persuade them that their research is correct. We scientists already do on an esoteric level exactly what Mooney and Nisbet argue that we should do on the level of communication with the public.

-->Joshua Rosenau, a graduate student at the Univ. of Kansas, offers an endorsement from the frontlines:

I would be the first to say that teaching means stretching, even breaking, boundaries. I just think that if there's a door, or a window, that's a better way to get at someone than banging your head against a wall. Framing is a tool that lets you stretch people's minds, and keeps them from shutting you out.

--> A response (in German) from Science @

(Basic translation) Staying out of the framing wars would be the honorable thing to do, but then you wouldn't be heard. Yet getting involved comes with a bunch of pitfalls. It's a fine line.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
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