Saturday, February 6, 2010

Talking Points: Matthew Nisbet on the Frames We All Use to Communicate

News Flash:
Open magazine’s recent cover story on climate change was so poorly researched and written that I suspect even many climate change denialists secretly found it embarrassing.  Last week I showed how Open played fast and loose with the facts, and  how they got their information exclusively from well known climate skeptics and American think tanks with close ties to the oil industry

I don’t think Open convinced anyone who wasn't already convinced--their story was too sloppy and one-sided to be credible to people who have not already made up their mind.  But Open's hack job should remind us that we environmentalists have some work to do in this area as well.  Anu Ramdas, who blogs at Time and Us, recently sent me a link to an interesting video talk by an American scientist named Matthew C. Nisbet.

Nisbet argues that the way in which issues are framed has a profound impact on science education—in fact, when you really think about it, “framing” influences all education and all political discourse.  This is true because people everywhere tend to be “cognitive misers”: we organize our understanding of the world around relatively simple narratives which provide the context and frameworks we need to make sense of new learning.    Depending on the narratives used, the same information may be interpreted very differently by different people. When we "frame"an idea, we suggest a narrative that might help people understand the idea in a certain way.

Since “framing” is fundamentally a part of how people think, it really doesn’t make sense to ignore it.  Of course “framing” does not give us permission to mislead people.  Nisbet is concerned with how science organizations can educate the public about scientific issues--not for advocacy purposes, but in order to empower people to effectively participate in the public debate around issues that affect them.  But all of us, scientists and concerned citizens alike, need to understand  how to frame issues if we want to communicate our ideas effectively.

According to Nisbet, those who support a business-as-usual agenda in the US have figured out several "frames" they can use to stall a meaningful response to climate change.  First they sow the seeds of doubt: maybe climate change is not really happening; maybe it’s caused by sunspots, maybe it will be good for human life.  They know that people who are uncertain about global warming will be unlikely to support meaningful actions to slow it.  Second, they make much of the economic costs of converting to a low-carbon economy.  These first two frames reinforce each other: if in doubt, why do something that will slow economic growth?  Last of all, the American right-wing argues that it is unfair to allow India and China to continue to grow while forcing the US to cut back. 

It is interesting to note that the first two frames work very well in an Indian context and the third only requires a simple reversal: why should India and China do anything as long as the US refuses to act? 

Of course, all three of these arguments can—and should—be countered in fairly straightforward ways.  But environmentalists can’t just respond defensively. We need to develop our own frames if we are to successfully advocate for a sustainable future.   Nesbit suggests there are reasons for us to consider moving beyond the frame popularized by Al Gore in his movie An Inconvenient Truth, which emphasizes the disasters that will likely result from climate change (i.e., droughts, flooding, etc.)  Nesbit cites research which finds that Americans, at least, tend to respond better to concrete policy initiatives than to explanations of the environmental problems we face.  This research is interesting, but it's specific findings are not all applicable in India.  It says for example, that although Americans respond well to environmental messages related to urban public health,  the one thing they reacted most negatively to was the suggestion that reducing beef consumption would be healthy for people and the environment.  (So don't try to talk to Americans about their meat eating ways! Apparently, someone has done a very good job convincing them that a healthy diet requires beef.)

The beef industry is a problem American environmentalists will have to deal with at some point.  But Nesbit's talk got me thinking about what “frames” make the most sense in an Indian context. Off the top of my head, I can think of two: sustainable, equitable development and food security.

We must reframe what we mean by development.  Sustainable, equitable development will not involve a rush to build more and more shopping malls, flyovers, and blocks of luxury flats.  It will involve providing decent, affordable, energy-efficient housing for millions of people.  It will involve expansion and improvement of public transportation; it will involve cleaner rivers and clean drinking water for people all over the country.  These are ideas that make sense to most people, whether or not they understand the threats posed to us by global warming.

Of course in a country where hunger continues to stalk the land, and where every year farmers are driven to kill themselves by the thousands, the importance of food security is something everyone understands.  This, by the way, is related to sustainable development: shopping malls, flyovers and luxury flats will not feed our people.  With the food inflation we are seeing right now; with energy and fertilizer prices rising in the long run even as our water tables fall; with the droughts and floods we’ve seen in recent years—with all this, one hardly even has to use the words “climate change’ to argue that we need to make sustainable farming and efficient food storage and distribution a top priority.  But climate change makes it even more important for us to do these things. Like most effective frames, food security is being used by people from all parts of the political spectrum--for example, both sides in the debate over genetically modified foods are using the food security frame, whether or not they are aware of it.

I do want to make two things clear.  First, the frames I suggest are not new; people have been using these and other effective frames for a long time; I'm just suggesting that we can be more effective if we are aware of what we're doing. 

Second, this post makes things sound simple that are actually not simple at all.  Each farm, each slum, each road has it's own unique problems; simple "frames" like "equitable, sustainable development" and "food security" will not solve these problems: in the real world, complex problems require complex solutions.   Finding the right frames is only the first step we must take—but it's important step because it is part of how we will come to understand and communicate the problems we face and the kinds of solutions that might work.

As we go forward, we'll need to think of new and better ways to understand and frame the problems we face.  We need to talk about this; we might as well start now. 


  1. wonderful post!

    the frames you are developing based on the universal take home message/s in nisbet's lecture has one huge unaccounted parameter: audience heterogeneity of the developing countries. his lecture is aimed at the US and that audience uniformly has a base level of grasp and access to information, along with the basic scientific temperament (i know creationists et al :)).

    whereas the cognitive miserliness of your audience is another beast all together. when you/environmentalists/science educators are developing these frames, you/they would have to contend or first analyze the audience demography: students, educators, reading public, tv viewing janta, urban, rural etc etc... how to distill the core argument for each frame that it empowers this diverse range of your audience?

    on the other hand, if these frames are developed for internet accessing indians, it would be relatively simple. but less effective. i think.

  2. Anu,
    Thanks! And I think you are right; we have to understand the importance of audience--not only because of different levels of education, but also because of different material interests, different histories, etc. The Bus Rapid Transit system in Delhi was trashed most of all by the English language press because the audience of those papers were less likely to travel by bus. But the BRT survived because many more people ride buses than take private cars--and those people like the BRT, because if you go by bus, your ride is more pleasent and quicker because of it. That's just a simple example.

    I think the idea of food security (which works when addressing Bt Brinjal, farmer suicide, food inflation, droughts and floods--even terrosism and military spending) is one frame that has fairly universal utility. That's partly because even the most well off segment of society has some sense of how close many people already live to hunger--and they know that although societies can tolerate a surprising level of hunger, the legitimacy of the status quo is hard to maintain when you have people dying of starvation in large numbers. So everyone has a stake in not seeing that happen. I think "sustainable equitable development" is something that will only happen if it is pushed by a mass movement by people with a material self interest in it. I don't see the Delhi elite saying, please turn our shopping malls into universities and hosptals; build decent housing for all!

    One more thought: I get a bit uncomfortable when Nesbit cautions us regarding our use of the fact that climate change is likely to have catastrophic results. It reminds me of a US environmental leader who recently argued that US greens should not even talk about the need to help India and China with technology and resources, as Americans are not ready for that idea. These may not be an idea that people respond favorably to, but they are important ideas. The only thing I hate worse than learning that my flat is infested with termites is NOT learning that my flat is infested with termites until it is too late to do something. Sometimes we just need to tell people the truth.

    Thanks for stopping by!


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