The Ethics of Framing Science: Four Guiding Principles

When pundits like Richard Dawkins use the trust and authority granted them as scientists to denigrate religious publics, is it unethical?

On issues such as climate change, nanotechnology, and evolution, research in the area of framing is being used to design and plan communication initiatives and to craft novel, accessible, and relevant narratives for nontraditional audiences across media formats. The intended outcomes include increased learning, dialogue, and public participation.

Yet what's still missing is a clear outline of the ethical and normative imperatives that apply to scientists, journalists, and their organizations when actively drawing upon framing to achieve these public engagement goals. Ethical and normative implications were in fact one of the key concerns raised in the letters published in response to our 2007 article at Science.

In a first effort to lay out a detailed ethical framework, I recently completed a draft of a chapter for a forthcoming edited volume titled Communicating Biological Sciences: Ethical and Metaphorical Dimensions due out later this year. I hope to be expanding on this first sketch of an ethical framework in additional articles and upcoming talks. Below the fold I have posted a section from the introduction that lays out four key principles covered in the chapter.

Also, of interest to the Scienceblogs community, I include a section of the chapter that discusses these principles as applied to the New Atheist movement's strategic use of framing and the related use of framing by political partisans in the U.S. I will be reviewing some of these ethical imperatives in an upcoming April 13 talk sponsored by the NIH and the National Academies on "Communicating Evolution."

[Introduction to the chapter]

To begin the chapter, I briefly review how past research in political communication and sociology describes a lay public that makes sense of science-related policy debates by drawing upon a mental toolkit of cognitive short cuts and easily applied criteria. This research shows that science literacy has only a limited influence on perceptions; instead public judgments are based on an interaction between the social background of an audience and the frames most readily available by way of the news, popular culture, social networks, and/or conversations.

Surveys indicate that Americans strongly believe in the promise of science to improve life, deeply admire scientists, and hold science in higher esteem than almost any other institution. Scientists therefore enjoy tremendous communication capital; the challenge is to understand how to use this resource effectively and wisely. Importantly, in terms of ethical obligations, one of the conclusions of this body of research is that whenever possible, dialogue should be a focus of science communication efforts, rather than traditional top-down and one-way transmission approaches.

I then briefly describe a deductive set of frames that apply consistently across science-related debates. Breaking "the frame" so to speak is very difficult to do, since the interpretative resources that society draws upon to collectively make sense of science are based on shared identities, traditions, history, and culture. I also review the important differences between "science," "policy," and "politics," arguing that there are few cases, if any, where science points decisively to a clear policy path or where policy decisions are free from politics. In this context, scientists and journalists can be either "issue advocates" or "honest brokers," and in each role, framing is central to communication effectiveness.

Yet, no matter their chosen role, scientists and journalists should always emphasize the values-based reasons for a specific policy action. As I discuss, when a policy choice is simplistically defined as driven by "sound science" or as a matter of "inconvenient truths," it only serves to get in the way of public engagement and consensus-building. Science becomes just another political resource for competing interest groups, with accuracy often sacrificed in favor of political victory.

Indeed, accuracy is a third ethical imperative. No matter their role as issue advocate or honest broker, both scientists and journalists must respect the uncertainty that is inherent to any technical question and resist engaging in hyperbole. If these groups stray from accurately conveying what is conventionally known about an issue, they risk losing public trust.

Finally, for scientists and journalists, a fourth ethical imperative is to avoid using framing to denigrate, stereotype, or attack a particular social group or to use framing in the service of partisan or electoral gains. As I review, this is particularly relevant to communicating about issues such as evolution, where pundits such as Richard Dawkins use their authority as scientists to argue their personal opinion that science undermines the validity of religion and even respect for the religious. The ethical norm also applies to the use by partisans of stem cell research--and science generally--as a political wedge strategy in recent elections. Framing will always be an effective and legitimate part of social criticism and electoral politics, but for scientists and journalists to simplistically define critiques of religion or opposition to a candidate as a "matter of science" only further fuels polarization, alienating key publics and jeopardizing the perceived legitimacy of science....


[Later section from chapter on evolution, New Atheist movement, and partisan uses]

Communication As Consensus or Conflict?

In January 2008, the National Academies issued a revised edition of Science, Evolution, and Creationism, a report intentionally framed in a manner that would more effectively engage audiences who remain uncertain about evolution and its place in the public school curriculum. To guide their efforts, the Academies commissioned focus groups and a national survey to gauge the extent of lay citizens' understanding of the processes, nature, and limits of science. They also specifically wanted to test various frames that explained why alternatives to evolution were inappropriate for science class (Labov & Pope, 2008). The National Academies' use of audience research in structuring their report is worth reviewing, since it stands as a leading example of how to ethically employ framing to move beyond polarization and to promote public dialogue on historically divisive issues.

The Academies' committee had expected that a convincing storyline for the public on evolution would be a public accountability frame, emphasizing past legal decisions and the doctrine of church-state separation. Yet the data revealed that audiences were not persuaded by this framing of the issue. Instead, somewhat surprisingly, the research pointed to the effectiveness of a social progress frame that defined evolutionary science as the modern building block for advances in medicine and agriculture. The research also underscored the effectiveness of a middle-way/ compromise frame, reassuring the public that evolution and religious faith can be fully compatible, a message in line with the longstanding position of the National Academies and other major science organizations. Taking careful note of this feedback, the National Academies decided to structure and then publicize the final version of the report around these core frames.

[Update: With clarity in mind, I have added the italicized above to the draft version of the chapter.]

To reinforce these messages, the National Academies report was produced in partnership with the Institute of Medicine and the authoring committee chaired by Francisco Ayala, a leading biologist who had once trained for the Catholic priesthood. The report opens with a compelling "detective story" narrative of the supporting evidence for evolution, yet placed prominently in the first few pages is a call out box titled "Evolution in Medicine: Combating New Infectious Diseases," featuring an iconic picture of passengers on a plane wearing SARS masks. On subsequent pages, other social progress examples are made prominent in call out boxes titled "Evolution in Agriculture: The Domestication of Wheat" and "Evolving Industry: Putting Natural Selection to Work." Lead quotes in the press release feature a similar emphasis.

To engage religious audiences, at the end of the first chapter, following a definition of science, there is a prominent three page special color section that features testimonials from religious scientists, religious leaders and official church position statements, all endorsing the view that religion and evolution are compatible. Both the report and the press release state that: "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." In a subsequent journal editorial, these core themes as featured in the report were endorsed by twenty professional science societies and organizations (FASEB 2008).

The Richard Dawkins School of Communication

For the National Academies and these professional societies, political conflicts over evolution have been a lesson learned as to the importance of connecting with diverse audiences and building consensus around commonly shared values. Yet what continues to be the loudest science-affiliated voice on the matter of evolution takes a decidedly different framing strategy. Several scientist authors and pundits, led by the biologist Richard Dawkins (2006), argue that the implications of evolutionary science undermine not only the validity of religion but also respect for all religious faith. Their claims help fuel the conflict frame in the news media, generating journalistic frame devices that emphasize "God vs. Science," or "Science versus religion." These maverick communicators, dubbed "The New Atheists," also reinforce deficit model thinking, consistently blaming conflict over evolution on public ignorance and irrational religious beliefs.

Dawkins, for example, argues as a scientist that religion is comparable to a mental virus or "meme" that can be explained through evolution, that religious believers are delusional, and that in contrast, atheists are representative of a healthy, independent, and pro-science mind. In making these claims, not only does Dawkins use his authority as the "Oxford University Professor of the Public Understanding of Science" to denigrate various social groups, but he gives resonance to the false narrative of social conservatives that the scientific establishment has an anti-religion agenda.

The conflict narrative is powerfully employed in the 2008 anti-evolution documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. By relying almost exclusively on interviews with outspoken atheist scientists such as Dawkins and the blogger PZ Myers, Expelled reinforces the false impression that evolution and faith are inherently incompatible and that scientists are openly hostile to religion. In the film, the comedic actor Ben Stein plays the role of a conservative Michael Moore, taking viewers on an investigative journey into the realm of "Big Science," an institution where Stein concludes that "scientists are not allowed to even think thoughts that involve an intelligent creator."

Stein and the film's producers employ a public accountability narrative to suggest that scientists have been denied tenure and that research has been suppressed, all in the service of an atheist agenda to hide the supposedly fatal flaws in evolutionary theory. As central frame devices, the film uses historic footage of the Berlin Wall and emphasizes freedom as a central American value. The sinister message is that "Darwinism" has led to atheism, fascism, and communism. As a corollary, if Americans can join Stein in tearing down the wall of censorship in science it would open the way to religious freedom and cultural renewal.

One leading example from the film is an interview with Myers, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota-Morris, and author of the Pharyngula blog. Myers' comments in the film reflect much of the content of his blog, which is estimated to receive over a 1 million readers per month. Interviewed in his laboratory, against a backdrop of microscopes and scientific equipment, Myers offers the following view of religion (see YouTube clip):

Religion is naiveté that gives some people comfort and we don't want to take it away from them. It's like knitting, people like to knit. We are not going to take their knitting needles away, we are not going to take away their churches, but we have to get it to a place where religion is treated at a level that it should be treated. That is something fun that people get together and do on the weekend, and really doesn't affect their life as much as it has been so far.

In a follow up, when prompted to discuss how he believes this goal might be accomplished, Myers offers a line of reasoning that reflects the deficit model paradigm, arguing that science literacy is in direct conflict with religious belief:

Greater science literacy, which is going to lead to the erosion of religion, and then we will get this nice positive feedback mechanism going where as religion slowly fades away we will get more and more science to replace it, and that will displace more and more religion which will allow more and more science in and we will eventually get to that point where religion has taken that appropriate place as a side dish rather than a main course.

By the end of its spring 2008 run in theaters, Expelled ranked as one of the top grossing public affairs documentaries in U.S. history. Even more troubling have been the advanced screenings of Expelled for policymakers, interest groups, and other influentials. These screenings have been used to promote "Academic Freedom Acts" in several states, legislation that would encourage teachers (as a matter of "academic freedom") to discuss the alleged flaws in evolutionary science. In June 2008, an Academic Freedom bill was successfully passed into law in Louisiana with similar legislation under consideration in other states (See Nisbet, 2008; 2009a for more).

As social critics and pundits, there is nothing ethically wrong with Dawkins, Myers, and other so-called New Atheists arguing their personal views on religion, using as exclamation points carefully framed comparisons to fairies, hobgoblins, knitting, and child abuse. Similar to the feminist movement of the 1960s, Dawkins describes his communication goal as "consciousness raising" among the non-religious and those skeptical of religion.

Yet when Dawkins and other New Atheists also use the trust granted them as scientists to argue that religion is a scientific question, that science undermines even respect for religious publics, they employ framing unethically, drawing upon the rhetorical authority of science to stigmatize and attack various social groups. In the process, New Atheists turn what normatively should be a public dialogue about science and religion into a shouting match and media spectacle.

Partisan Soldiers with Science on their Side

As described earlier, a significant difference between the Bush and Obama administration, at least at this early stage in the latter's presidency, is that the Bush White House appeared willing to distort, obstruct, and re-frame for political gain the "first premise" conclusions of scientific experts and agencies, especially on research related to climate change and the environment.

In response, during the Bush administration, many scientists, journalists, elected officials, and political strategists focused on public accountability as a call-to-arms "to defend science." These advocates accused the George W. Bush administration of putting politics ahead of science and expertise on a number of issues, including climate change. For example, in the 2004 election, Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) made strategic use of the public accountability frame, comparing distortions on climate change to the administration's use of intelligence to invade Iraq: "What I worry about with the president is that he's not acknowledging what's on the ground, he's not acknowledging the realities of North Korea, he's not acknowledging the truth of the science of stem-cell research or of global warming and other issues."

In 2005, journalist Chris Mooney's best-selling The Republican War on Science helped crystallize the public accountability train of thought, turning the "war on science" into a partisan rallying cry. In 2007, Hillary Clinton, in a speech marking the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, promised to end the "war on science" in American politics, highlighting the new prominence for this frame device.

The public accountability frame has outraged and intensified the commitment of many Democrats, environmental advocates, and scientists, motivating them to label Republican and conservative political figures as "deniers" on climate change and to engage in sharp rhetorical attacks in other policy disputes. Yet for many members of the public, "war on science" claims are likely ignored as just more elite rancor or only further alienate Republicans on an issue such as climate change.

Framing will always be a part of electoral politics and scientists as citizens should actively participate in political campaigns. Yet similar to the case of New Atheists, if scientists speak from their authority and institutional position as trusted experts, using framing to claim that a specific political party or a candidate is either "pro-science" or "anti-science," the result is likely to be both normatively and strategically undesirable.

First, claims of a "war on science" or a "rising anti-science culture" are inaccurate-- and similar to the New Atheist movement-- reinforce deficit model assumptions. In Congress, for example, on the great majority of issues there is widespread bi-partisan support for science, a reality reflected in Federal spending on basic research and bi-partisan boosterism in areas such as food biotechnology (see Nisbet & Huge, 2006 for a review). Even members of Congress who personally believe in creationism are likely to vote for broad-based funding of scientific research, since they perceive science generally in terms of social progress and economic competitiveness. Moreover, in terms of the general public, as detailed at the beginning of this chapter, public opinion research shows that science and scientists enjoy widespread admiration, trust, and support among Americans, no matter their political identification or religious views.

The unintended consequence of "war on science" claims is that given the miserly nature of the public, the framing strategy easily reinforces the partisan divide on issues such as stem cell research and climate change while promoting a false narrative that science is for Democrats and not for Republicans. Since 2004, when the Democratic Party began to use stem cell research and climate change as part of an electoral "wedge strategy," public perceptions have predictably followed. With these partisan messages as a strong heuristic, polls show that the differences between Democrats and Republicans in views of embryonic stem cell research and climate change have widened to more than thirty percentage points respectively (Dunlap & McCright 2008; Pew 2008; VCU Life Sciences, 2008).

In fact, this persistent and widening gap in perceptions over the past decade suggests that climate change and stem cell research have joined a short list of issues such as gun control or taxes that define what it means to be a partisan in the United States. So like the New Atheists, while "war on science" claimants believe they are defending the integrity of science, they are more likely to be part of the communication problem, reinforcing partisan divisions across key issues.

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

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Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.