What the Discovery Institute Understood about Framing

The Discovery Institute have a blog post up commenting on our WPost Outlook article.

Given this latest response to our Framing Science thesis, I wanted to take time out from an incredibly busy week to once again describe framing and its implications for successful science communication.



As I have noted and Coturnix so eloquently describes, in the process of communication, you can't avoid framing. Scientists do it all the time in lab talk, in conference papers, in powerpoints, in journal articles, and in grant applications.

However, as the communication process passes to science writers, given the different messengers and the intended lay audience, the level and nature of framing also shifts. This is commonly referred to as "science popularization."

Generally, re-interpretations by science writers remain true to the science and also heavily science focused. Indeed, science writers do an amazing job of being the conduit between scientists and the small audience of enthusiasts who pay close attention to science-related coverage.

Yet something different happens when areas of science emerge as a political issue, and it is this process that I have spent most of my research career studying.

It is when science shifts to the political beat, the opinion pages etc. that new frames (or interpretations) emerge and new voices are given standing in coverage. These new and sometimes rival voices strategically craft frames that feed on the biases of political reporters, columnists, cable news hosts and their respective audiences.

As Chris Mooney and I describe in a 2005 cover story for the Columbia Journalism Review, this is exactly what the Discovery Institute managed to do so successfully,

The Discovery Institute used framing to "spin" the science in ways that cut against the peer-reviewed literature and the overwhelming consensus of scientists.

For some critics of our suggestions, this is what they argue, that framing means losing scientific integrity. Yet they also miss a key point. Framing doesn't have to mean accenting false information and interpretations.

In this sense, framing is like nuclear energy. It can be used to further social progress or it can be used to promote disaster. It depends who's hands it is in. What we and others like Dietram Scheufele are suggesting is that scientists take advantage of what we know about how audiences interpret messages across our fragmented media system and use this knowledge to more effectively engage the broader American public.

Scientists should remain true to the underlying science, but recast messages about issues such as climate change, the teaching of evolution in schools, and stem cell research in ways that make them more personally meaningful to Americans who otherwise probably tune out the scientific details.

In framing, if you go beyond the science, things can backfire, as we describe in the original Science piece and at the Washington Post. There we detail how claims that global warming causes more intense hurricanes have led to a counter strategy by conservatives that asserts "alarmism," another frame device.

The result is that it becomes very easy for citizens to just default to their partisanship as a short-cut in making up their minds about the issue. That's why we have a 40-50 point difference in polls on how Republicans and Democrats view the science and the urgency of the issue.

And this leads back to our central argument: If scientists don't effectively provide readily available heuristics that remain true to the science, then someone else will. Opponents and allies alike will take advantage of framing to promote their preferred science-related policies. In political coverage, at the opinion pages, in television advertising, and the cable news shows, scientists will literally be ceding their important role as communicators to others. AND this is exactly what happened in the early years of the ID-creationism debate.

Moreover, one of the reasons why a coordinated response to the Discovery Institute was so slow to develop was that there just wasn't enough appreciation among science advocates for how framing could be used to play on the cognitive biases of the public and the fragmented nature of our conflict-driven media system.

We assumed that the facts would simply win out, without any real attempt to sell those facts. Most of us thought that surely, in today's world, after so many court victories, "creationism 2.0" would never be accepted as an alternative to the building block for so many advances in the medical and life sciences.

We were wrong. The Discovery Institute, through careful tailoring and targeting of their message, literally created a public perception wedge, casting intelligent design as the "middle way," the scientifically "good enough" compromise between teaching "atheistic evolution" and constitutionally unacceptable biblical doctrine.

I talk in detail about this in a past special issue of Geotimes. Here's what I wrote back in 2005 (the co-author is my brother Erik, doctoral candidate at Cornell and assoc. director of the survey center):

At one level, balanced coverage plays on the Christian evangelical outlook held by roughly a third of Americans. These citizens, as an average tendency, use their religious values, cues from religious leaders and their strong belief in the veracity of biblical scripture as a screen in interpreting news coverage, selecting and accepting only those pro-ID arguments available in the media that reinforce their natural reservations about evolution. Unfortunately, any change in the views of this committed minority is probably generations away.

For other Americans, however, support for teaching alternatives to evolution stems in part from a lack of appreciation for the strong scientific consensus backing evolutionary theory. To use an analogy from election campaigns, these citizens are the swing vote or "persuadables" in the communication battle over evolution. Their lack of understanding connects to a well-intentioned, but, in this case, misguided sense of democratic pluralism: no specific belief, no matter how scientific, can be the complete answer, and therefore all beliefs should be included and respected.

Confusion about the scientific dimensions of the controversy is also likely linked for some citizens to growing reservations about the impact of science on daily life. These concerns may include increased anxiety about the speed of technological change and the perception of an increasingly technocratic, expert-dominated society.

Emerging from these orientations is a populist view that teaching both evolution and ID makes sense. "Low-information pluralists" believe rightly that students should be exposed to multiple points of view, and be allowed to make up their own minds. However, in this particular case, where they are misguided is in believing that ID passes both the scientific and the legal standards necessary to allow inclusion in science textbooks and teaching standards. If these citizens accept ID as being scientifically legitimate, then it is easier for them to additionally accept the paired argument from ID supporters that the issue is fundamentally about enabling local control of education and about respecting a diversity of beliefs.

Lacking both the time and the motivation to be fully informed about the debate, these low-information citizens remain heavily dependent on only the arguments most readily available in news coverage; if many journalists therefore increasingly paint evolution and ID as dueling and competing scientific viewpoints, then public opinion is likely to move in favor of altering science standards.

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  • The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
  • Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
  • Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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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.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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