“Reframing” Science – Outside the Lab

I started work on my Monroe project three days after arriving home in rainy Binghamton, but I suppose I’ve been waiting to make my first blog post until I felt I had significant “results.” (I’m so used to scientific research that under other circumstances, this post would be a graph.) Of course, I knew at the start that my research was going to be largely qualitative.

Although I posted an abstract earlier this spring, I thought I’d re-summarize my project. I was inspired by my freshman seminar course, “Beyond Petroleum as Fuel,” to investigate the role of science communication in shaping public understanding of environmental issues. Obviously, this is an investigation into an topic fraught with bias. Much of the information we, as ordinary citizens, hear about environmental topics like climate change, resource depletion, and energy issues is delivered through a confusing tunnel of media and politics. Although every public issue is bound to be contorted by politics, it’s doubly concerning when the issue at hand has a strong basis in scientific research. Science is a beacon of truth, right? Even if we don’t all come to the same conclusions about climate change or alternative energy, we should at least be able to create a dialogue in which both sides of the argument are informed by the same data and information, right?

In my project, I wanted to investigate the complex relationship that communication of scientific information has had -and has -with public perception of environmental issues. I’ve been working from a book list that incorporates major pieces of writing from the history of the environmental movement, as well as popular science books. I’ve read several books so far, and I am working steadily through a list that will most definitely keep growing beyond the summer. From the reading portion of my project, I’ve begun to understand why I have so much trouble describing my thesis to others; it can be approached from two related but opposite directions. Major works of environmental writing are often infused with scientific data (Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is probably the most prominent example); on the other hand, popular science books (Carl Sagan, anyone?) which are not explicitly environmental still carry strong themes regarding humankind’s small place in the universe, and a tone of reverence for the natural world from which we derive knowledge as well as beauty. This reverence leads easily enough to an ethic of conservation and respect for the planet we live on. There is a strong mutual relationship between scientific study and acknowledgment of our impact on the world around us.

One of the most influential papers I have read so far – “What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions” – was published in the American Journal of Botany in 2009. In the paper, authors Nisbet and Schufele discuss the idea of “framing.” Frames are “interpretative storylines that communicate what is at stake in a societal debate and why the issue matters” (Gamson and Modigliani, 1989, cited in Nisbet and Schufele). My views of science were immediately challenged when I read this sentence; what do “interpretive storylines” have to do with a subject area that is supposed to be a paragon of truth and objectivity? I am beginning to realize that my thesis, though it relies on science as a source of objective information that can guide public policy and decision making, removes science from the realm of objectivity and places it in more nebulous realms dictated by human emotion and bias. The average citizen, endowed with decision-making power, does not possess the time or educational background to review and understand the relevant literature concerning current environmental topics. Our information has to come from somewhere, and that “somewhere” is either the media, politicians, or scientists themselves, stepping out of the laboratory to become writers, advisers and advocates. Like it or not, “frames” are here to stay.

The authors discuss the “frame contest” that occurs as certain frames gain primacy if they are more compatible with the dominant culture of a time, and list some major frames that occur in science-related policy debates: “Social Progress,” “Economic development/competitiveness,” “Morality/ethics,” “Scientific/technical uncertainty,” “Pandora’s box/Frankenstein’s monster/runaway science,” “Public accountability/governance,” “Middle way/alternative path,” “Conflict/strategy.” For a more detailed description of each of these frames, feel free to access the paper, cited at the end of this post.  The writer in me is excited at the possibilities for analysis presented by these frames, as much as the scientist in me is made uncomfortable by their existence.

As I move forward, I will continue to read more and to write more, with increased cognizance of the use of specific frames in the books I read and in my own writing. In the meantime, I’ll be in the lab, where things really are black and white…at least in my SEM images.

For more information, access: Nisbet, M. C. &  Scheufele, D. A. (2009). What’s Next for Science Communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions. American Journal of Botany, 96(10), 000-000.


  1. I feel similarly about not posting definite “results” as in scientific research- Iive become so accustomed to data tables and graphs!
    Have you considered advertisements or information found on websites and newspapers as potential sources? Since your project concerns public perception of environmental issues, and you mention that the average citizen receives most of their information from the media, they might be worth looking into.

  2. I was reading a short essay by sci-fi author Stanley Weinbaum (from the 1930’s) that discusses this very topic. (It’s called “An Autobiographical Sketch of Stanley Weinbaum”, written probably in 1934 or 5, although I don’t know for sure) The essay bemoans the fact that lately, people have considered science as a savior or guide of mankind, which Weinbaum believes is wrong. He says “science is utterly impersonal and never points a way, [ . . .] Science describes but does not interpret; it can predict the results of any given alternative but cannot choose between them [in the sense of an ethical choice, not a probabilistic one].” While science can give us the data we need to make decisions, it cannot help us pick the right choice, because that depends on what we value, and science does not include values. I agree with this, and what is more, I think that the logical extension of this idea in fact supports the use of “frames”, since without an ethical frame science is useless. What is important is that the frames not warp the science; that people are honest enough to present all the evidence and merely try to guide interpretation to favor their view. And no frame should attack science itself or misconstrue its motivations to be other than truth-finding.
    By the way, I find that part about certain frames becoming dominant in certain cultures very interesting, and probably right (actually, your whole project sounds interesting). I hope you don’t mind my “preaching” just now.

  3. sehartzell says:

    Sorry for the late response, friends, and thank you for your comments!

    Yvonne – Thanks for the suggestions! A big part of my project has been an historical literature review of popular books/essays relating to environmental issues.I wanted to rely primarily on sources written by scientists for a popular audience, and I’ve since come to realize that there are positives and negatives to such an approach. Positives: They are, for the most part, scientifically credible sources, whose impact on the environmental movement has been validated by their historical legacy. Negatives: Most writers have a clear agenda. I think that’s unavoidable; I can’t imagine writing a book on an issue towards my feelings were entirely neutral. But, it distorts history because it’s more about what the writers want people to think than what they actually think.

    It would be fascinating to delve into articles and editorials from newspapers and magazines; it would shift the focus from “How do the scientist-writers convey the messages they convey” to “What messages are people actually hearing?” Example: I live in upstate New York, and my area has become kind of a battleground over the issue of high-volume hydraulic fracturing. I’ve been keeping track of this issue, going to events and reading editorials in the paper, and it’s demonstrated that, while books can have a very wide-reaching impact, issues like these often unfold so quickly that public opinions are formed before anyone who’s truly informed has the chance to research it thoroughly and produce a piece of writing.

    One of my conclusions (albeit a very qualitative, unsubstantiated conclusion that merits more research) is that the subset of the population most likely to read a book relating to a given environmental issue is probably the subset that is already at least somewhat informed about what they’re reading. Any attempts to communicate to the public must really be to the public, and not to the subset of people already interested in the issue! I’ll be blogging more in the next two weeks about that problem, and posing some future research questions.

    Greg: Thank you for your comments! I will definitely look up that essay. You hit on a really important point with frames being necessary but having the potential to corrupt the science they portray. I started to write a comment to you, but realized that it was getting very lengthy and might be better suited to a second blog post. Check it out! I wanted to comment on the cultural specificity of frames, because I’ve noticed writers taking advantage of this in some of the books I’ve been reading. Two clear examples that come to mind are Silent Spring. Rachel Carson wrote the book in 1962, and definitely capitalized on Cold War culture by comparing DDT to radioactive fallout from nuclear bombs. This operates as a successful “Pandora’s box/Frankenstein’s monster/runaway science” frame, but a very culturally specific one. (All frame names are from Nisbet, M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. (2009). What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions. American Journal of Botany 96(10): 000-000.) In The End of Nature, published in 1989, Bill McKibben uses what I’d label a “Social Progress” frame by comparing our responsibility to react to climate change with the phasing-out of CFCs. The Montreal Protocol, which was designed specifically for that purpose, was entered into force at the beginning of that year, so it was a timely choice for comparison. “Hey, guys, remember that time in January when we took constructive action based on scientific evidence to prevent further environmental damage from our actions? Wouldn’t it be great to do that again!’