ProSkeps and “Do not think of a frame!”

May 1, 2007 at 1:17 pm | Posted in Communicating science | 1 Comment

Thanks for the reference to Mixing Memory on Talkin’ Science, Rob. The three points made in that post are important:

1. Be nice
2. Know your audience
3. Words matter


Professional Skeptics (ProSkeps) handle all three points rather well. However, being nice and appearing nice are quite different in intent and goal: one is genuine, the other manipulative ~ with the best manipulation appearing genuine, of course!

From a member of the public’s point of view, ProSkeps come across as

” … nice guys who tell me what I want to hear, share my concerns, answer my questions in plain English, and help me tell my friends what I think.

Gee, they even worry about costs, just like I do, and have compassion for the poor. That’s good enough for me. What more do I need?”


Try this: Truth.

… but some members of the public apparently believe (i.e. they have told me so) that

” … all scientists lie”


In response, these people simply choose the most appealing argument. This choice is easy to explain to themselves, to their friends, and to us. (Unwittingly they allowed the ground to be prepared and the rationale to be carefully sown and nurtured until it needed to come to fruition.) It’s all pretty well settled in their minds.

Three more tips on communication seem to be missing in the threads I have read about framing science:

1. Know when to stay quiet (radio silence has its uses)
2. Stick to the key facts (send and receive signals, not noise)
3. Support “middlemen” (connect with reliable repeaters)


These tips are easy to forget in enthusiastic (or even, dare I say, exasperated) exchanges with ProSkeps, even with daily practice. That public are privy to such slips compounds confusion.

  • Silence can be hard to justify. Silence can be broken by someone else stepping in on your conversation, kindly “doing you a favour” … while actually prolonging a line of thought you wished were dead!
  • Facts are not enough. Key facts need to be conveyed and their importance stressed often. Why do scientists agree certain facts are more significant and others less significant? Tell the public. Clear, simple explanations with analogies are crucial. (e.g. do you trim your fingernails to lose weight?)
  • Scientists should support honest laymen, public relations professionals, and others conveying a clear message to a group with whom they communicate regularly and successfully. Furthermore, scientists need to support fellow scientists who choose to venture into this public arena. Not all will: it is not easy. I know from my own experience. You have to be satisfied walking a fine line between a) frustration—on your own part, compounded by what your colleagues will think of you—that explanations are incomplete, and b) incomprehension on the part of your audience, dizzy in a cloud of technical terminology.

People who are able to translate effectively from one frame of reference to another do have a valuable role ahead. These folk could be called “framers”, but that implies a less-than-honest approach. Better job descriptors would be “translators” or “enablers” or “communicators”: all having at least neutral or—better still—helpful, positive connotations.

I can frame a frame. I cannot translate a translate, enable an enable, or communicate a communicate. Therein lies yet another problem with this entire debate: “frame” itself is rife with spin opportunities!

Framing someone is akin to conning them, so, naturally, scientists are averse to that idea. Framing an argument is something quite different, and is not advisable to dismiss this type of framing out of hand. In fact, many of us, consciously or subconsciously, frame our words most of the time. That’s why it is easier to “talk work” in the lab or office with colleagues who share one’s frame of reference and specialist expertise than it is to explain to a family member how on Earth one earns a living …

Media folk often relay scientific information to the public in a way which is not incorrect but appears insufficient to scientists. My recommendation to subject experts in this situation would be to develop a network of reliable communicators with whom you are willing to collaborate to achieve shared goals, and relax your standards of technical rigour and comprehensive detail to concentrate on the main message we need to convey.

P.S. An idea from The Eden Project that caught my eye:

Natural landscape ~ living pictures at The Eden Project, Cornwall, UK


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  1. Nicely put. Two thoughts come hot on each others heels; Semiotics and Sun Tsu. The first, because of the ideas implicit in this discussion of ‘frames’; they are reworkings of existing ideas in language and communication studies – as you said; all communication takes place within a frame of some kind – the syntactical, the semantic, the deep structure – all appear within contexts. All that is said is understood in the listener’s terms, not the speaker’s. If the speaker needs to get a new idea through, she must first prepare the ground.

    Which leads on to Sun Tsu. Insofar as there is a ‘debate’ about climate change, and let’s not be fooled, too many people still don’t get it, then this debate has the characteristics of a classical conflict. Our enemy is the person who would prevent certain decisions being made, certain actions being delayed or avoided. All he has to do is create confusion, and his objective is achieved. We need to think like generals; how do we win each battle, how can we avoid battles, how to we win the campaign?

    As I like this idea, i’m going to say more on my own blog; so thanks again for the inspiration!

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